Richard Hebda and Maud C. á Geilini
Photographs by Maud C. á Geilini.
Svinoy is one of many Islands that make up the Faroe Islands of the North Atlantic Ocean between Shetland and Iceland. Potatoes have been grown on these very cool oceanic islands for centuries. Svinoy is located in the northeast part of the Faroes and consists mostly of a flat to rolling surface of basalt flows. Several green valleys cross that basalt surface and have soil suitable to grow potatoes. Access to Svinoy is by boat two times a day or by scheduled helicopter flight a few times a week. Potato growing on Svinoy and in the Faroes is a very different matter than growing them in the mid latitudes.
Maud C. á Geilini and her family grow potatoes in Svinoy. I learned of Maud’s potato knowledge through the Faroese Postal Service because I collect the beautiful stamps of the Faroes (see the picture of Svinoy stamp). Maud’s job is to promote Faroe Island stamps to the world. See www.stamps.fo for more images and information on Faroese stamps.
Growing potatoes in the Faroe Islands requires special knowledge and practices. Maud has provided wonderful photographs and videos of how it is done to go along with this article. Svinoy’s climate is similar to that of Torshavn the largest city in the Faroes (see our other article on Faroes potatoes at http://heritagepotato.ca/northernclimates/faroe-islands/).
Potatoes are stored in boxes in the barn where it never freezes, but the conditions are cool and dark and just right for potato storage. In spring, potatoes are brought indoors to sprout before planting. As you can see in the pictures the potatoes have started to sprout when they are taken out to plant in mid to late spring. Planting time season varies from late April to late May. In 2021 planting the field was finished on May 31 because the spring was very cold so planting was delayed.
Sprouted potato tubers ready for planting in April and May on Svinoy
Just before planting, the potato field undergoes a unique preparation: no machine cultivation or digging. The planting field is mostly a flat or gently sloping area of turf near the houses of the hamlet of Svinoy. The soil consists of silty-loam and is covered in strong short turf. When not used for potatoes, the field is grazed by sheep keeping it short. No potatoes or other crop are grown in the field during the previous year and it is not cultivated. People usually wait four to five years before replanting the field. However some people follow a shorter time cycle, with those who do not have much land planting in the same field every second year.
Strings are used to mark out the field in long rows in a pattern of one narrow one and on either side of it a wide one. A special sharp disc tool is used to cut the turf such that a narrow strip of turf remains in the centre and two wide strips are cut on either side. The narrow strip of turf is then left in place. The wide strips are cut across about every 20-25 cm, same as the spacing of the potato tubers that are going to be planted.
Potato tubers are placed on the turf surface of the narrow strip spaced about 20-25 cm apart. If the spacing between the potatoes is too wide, it may result in the potatoes growing too fast. Fast growth often results in a black spot in the middle of the potato. At planting time, fertilizer is sprinkled between each tuber on the surface of the turf. Then using a special tool, the wide mats of turf directly beside the row of potatoes are under-cut and loosened from the soil below. A slit is cut in the centre of the mat and each mat is turned upside down onto the nearest seed tuber. The turf mats are about 7 cm thick.
The potato shoots then emerge through the slit in the upside-down turf mat and grow until they are ready to harvest. It seems that there are few weeds to deal with and there is no hilling required. The first potatoes are usually harvested at the end of August or in the beginning of September. The potatoes continue to grow until October when they are all harvested. The top soil very rarely freezes in the Faroes. The first frost is usually in October.
According to Maud the yield overall is 21-28 potatoes – about 4-5 kg, per metre of row. An average year the yield will be 7-8 times more. The yield varies according to the kind of seed and from year to year according to the weather.
Traditionally the potatoes are boiled but may also be baked or mashed. They are eaten often with lamb or fish in Svinoy.
Maud has planted several kinds of potatoes. However, the main variety they grow is Oleva, producing red-skinned tubers with light yellow flesh. Oleva gives large yields and is easy to grow. Apparently it is best to warm up the tubers from cold storage before planting them. Other varieties grown on the Faroes include Blue Congo (called Congo in Canada), Sina and Solist. Folva is also widely used and gives good yields.
Also, on the Faroes there is an old variety of red potato. This variety grows slowly and according to Maud it “should not be harvested too early, but it tastes good.” We searched several potato databases and have not been able to find the name for this potato variety. Considering its success over decades on the Faroe Islands, it is worthwhile to find out more about it. Most likely it has a different name in other places.