Through an acquaintance of my sister, Lucy, we have discovered how potatoes are grown in northern Finland almost at 70 degrees north latitude. This may be one of the most northern potato growing area in the world. The Finnish word for potato is peruna (plural perunat).
Juha Heinanen lives 9 km south of place called Tsieskula (Cieskul) about 4 km south of Kevo, Finland near the Norwegian border. Through my sister, I learned from Juha that his neighbour grew potatoes at Tsieskula until he passed away recently. When I checked the latitude of the site, I was astounded at how far north it is, (69 degrees 44 minutes north latitude) much further north than any other site I know about! Forests of birch and pine grow in the valley bottoms only, and the surrounding hills are covered in tundra.
Juha spoke with his neighbour, Niilo-Heikki Aikio, who remembered well how his father grew potatoes at their home. His father’s name is Josef Aslak Aikio and they are Saami, the indigenous people of northern Finland. Northern Finland is part of the traditional land of the Saami, called Sápmi (also called Lapland. Niilo-Heikki Aikio is, and his father was a Northern Saami language speaker.
Josef was the potato grower. Now people of the area buy their potatoes from the store because they are inexpensive and because they are from Finland and taste good. However, Josef grew his own potatoes in this far northern place. The road to Utsjoki was built in 1958. Before that time, it was very unlikely that people would have brought potatoes for sale to Utsjoki by horse or reindeer, the only means of transport. Growing potatoes at home would have been the only way of having them.
The potatoes were planted in a southwest-facing field on a gentle slope (Figure 1). Climatically this is the warmest of all possible positions in a local area. Site elevation is about 90m above sea level.
The field was developed on gravelly sand from which stones had been removed. First the forest was cleared, and the typical boreal moss layer removed from the surface. The field was fertilized for many years with cow manure obtained from a neighbour. Potato tubers were planted as soon as the frost was out of the ground, if possible, in late May but certainly in early June. The first potatoes were dug and eaten in late July. However, the main harvest usually took place in August.
I note that in the northern latitudes thick moss cover keeps the soil cold and even preserves permafrost. The gravely soil drains much better and warms up much more quickly than fine-textured silt or clay soils. So, the combination of a gentle southwest-facing slope and well-drained soil provided the best site conditions for growing potatoes in the far north.
From the perspective of growing season, the potatoes had about two to a maximum of three months to produce a crop. According to Juha, typically the last frost occurs by May 20 or so and the first fall frost can be expected mid September in the Utsjoki area. The climate of Tsieskula is harsh by mid latitude standards. The mean monthly temperature rises above freezing only in May to about 4C. July is the warmest month with a monthly mean of only about 14C (Figure 2). June and August are both almost as warm at 11-12C. By September, the days are again cold with the mean temperature less than 5C. There are generally fewer than 800 growing degree days. Winters are cold with monthly means at -10C. Moisture is however in good supply during the growing season with more than 70mm of rain in June, July and August.
Josef grew two kinds of potatoes Jaakko and Puikula. These are potatoes suited for northern climates.
Jaakko was developed in Finland in the 1930s from a cross between Dutch and German varieties. It is an early potato with good yields but susceptible to diseases. Jaakko was grown from the 1950s to 1990s but has been replaced for commercial markets by modern varieties. It is not widely grown today. The pale brown tubers are large, flat-oval and smooth (Figure 3). The flesh is light yellow. Plants grow to a medium height and leaves are glossy. The small white flowers are produced in great numbers. Jaakko has a mild taste with a floury texture. The tubers do not darken quickly when cut.
It would seem, that this potato because of its cold tolerance and early growth deserves to be preserved as a heritage variety especially for northern gardens.
Puikula is known as an Almond potato because of the tuber’s almond-like shape (Figure 4). The variety is grown specifically in northern Scandinavia. Puikula tubers are pale brown with very yellow flesh. The tuber produces bluish sprouts and white flowers. Apparently, it is identical to the white-flowered Mandel potato which is cultivated in northern Sweden. The production of the Puikula specialty variety is limited to northern Finland and has a protected Designation (region) of Origin from the European Union. The variety is susceptible to diseases in the warmer climates of the south of Finland. The origin of Puikula is not known making it a truly heritage variety.
You can see a wonderful video of Josef Aikio made when he was 96 years old in 2019. Although you may not be able to understand the Finnish words, Josef seemed to be remarkably at peace in his beautiful land of the Saami. In the video you will see him enjoying a supper meal with potatoes prominently on display on the plate. In the Northern Saami language the word for potato is “buđet”.
And for the potato eaters, Juha Heinanen boils two meals worth of potatoes and eats the first half with a sauce together with meat or fish. The second half he fries the next day and eats them with, for example smoked fish, and pesto. Juha buys whatever is available at the shop in the area. In June and early July he looks forward to “new potatoes”. These are small and are eaten unpeeled. He enjoys the new potatoes with “raw” salmon, trout, and arctic char that is prepared by covering the fileted fish the with coarse salt for 24 hours or so.
Thank you Juha Heinanen and Niilo-Heikki Aikio for sharing potato stories of northern Finland.
Thank you Lucy Hebda for connecting me with Juha Heinanen.
Juha Heinanen kindly reviewed and improved this article.
Jaako potato: https://public.keskofiles.com/f/k-ruoka/product/2000617800008?w=480&h=480&fit=max&auto=format&fm=jpg&cs=srgb&q=40&dpr=2