Perestroika potatoes in Tomsk, Central Siberia

by | May 15, 2021

July 2021

The city of Tomsk is located in central Siberia at about 56 degrees 30 minutes north latitude (N). Potatoes are widely grown in the area and are a staple food in the diet of the Russian people of the region. My friend, and botanical colleague, Marina Olonova reports that potatoes are grown as far north as 60 N in at the town of Kargasok at 70 metres above sea level on the Ob River. Marina notes that Tomsk Oblast (province) is known to be in a zone where agriculture is risky because of unpredictable weather variation. Formally, in Russian a potato is called “kartofel”, but informally potatoes are commonly called kartoshka (plural).

Despite being at 56 N (similar to Fort McMurray, Alberta) the climate of Tomsk is northern. The mean monthly temperature only rises well above freezing in May at 10C. June-August are warm with July reaching 19C. Cooling takes place rapidly in September and by October the mean monthly temperature is at freezing. This provides a growing season of about 90-120 days. Rain occurs evenly in the summer from 60-70 cm monthly.

Marina tells an important story about potatoes and food sustainability during a time of political and economic transition. The story emphasizes the importance of self-reliance and mutual support during difficult times caused not by climate change or other natural factors but by political transition and disruption of the supply chain.

Ken Marr (Royal British Columbia Museum) and Marina Olonova (Tomsk State University) sitting on a potato bed in Ust Nera, northern Siberia. Photo Richard Hebda.

From about 1990 to at least 2005 almost every city family planted potatoes. Tomsk University provided an opportunity for faculty and staff to grow potatoes for these 15 years during a time called perestroika. This was a difficult time because there was little food the result of economic instability which had begun in the late 1980’s. People did not plant potatoes in their country gardens with small summer houses (called dacha). These gardens were usually about 600 m2, and the people planted other vegetables. They may have grown 1 or 2 rows of potatoes to eat in summer at the dacha.

In April people inspected their potato tubers and selected and prepared the material. Usually, the potatoes were not washed but sometimes they were rinsed in Potassium permanganate (KMnO4) to control fungi. They let the tubers sprout slightly, but not too long so that the sprouts would not break off. The low flat boxes protected the sprouts from breaking. Initially people had good varieties and usually saved tubers from year to year.

If friends asked for tubers for planting material, they were selected at the same time and given to them to plant as well. Usually, friends exchanged and shared the good varieties. Marina notes that it was possible to buy seed tubers in the markets, but no one could guarantee the quality of such material. The selected tubers were placed in low boxes and kept separately from eating tubers. The flats of seed potatoes were sometimes brought into the living apartments for one to two weeks. 

According to Marina: “To get a plot of land for cultivation, we applied to the trade union. There was a special commission that dealt with potatoes. We indicated the size of area we needed (for a family of 4 we ordered 600 square meters) and we provided the address where our planting material could be picked up. Then we paid a completely insignificant amount for plowing the land and marking it.”

At a certain time in the spring the university took Marina and family to the field, which the potato commission rented from an agricultural enterprise. The date of planting potatoes in the Tomsk area is not the same from year to year, because climate is highly variable. sometimes the snow melts completely at the end of the first week of May, sometimes it does not melt until the last week of May. Usually, potatoes are planted during the first week of June when the soil is warm and dry enough. One year there was late frost and the planting happened in the second week. Now as the climate is warming potatoes are planted in late May.

In the Tomsk area potatoes grow best on sandy soils. Many fields are placed on the terraces of the Tom River (after which Tomsk is named).

Usually, the fields were in the same location every year, but the specific fields were different. If the land was bad, the next year they rented it from another company. The field had already been plowed and marked by the time people went to the fields and they only had to find the site with their name on the tag. Usually, employees of one university Faculty received plots near each other. Young and strong male volunteers from each faculty arrived in advance, took the planting material and unloaded the boxes to the appropriate plot of the field. The tubers were placed into the already dug trenches and buried. They were spaced about 50 centimetres from each other and about 30 cm deep to protect from possible frost, which can happen in May and June.

Some people fertilized the ground, but Marina’s family never did it.  In mid July the potato commission notified people of the date and time for hilling the potatoes. The fields were usually weeded at the time of hilling. Those who had finished work in their fields helped other families where only an older person or a single person were available to cultivate and hill. When all work was done people boarded the buses and returned to the University. Families with private cars went independently at their convenience, but most people travelled together because it was quite difficult to find the fields.

According to Marina, “Usually in the second week of September (in Tomsk usually it is warm and dry) we went to dig out our yield. We took the bags and labels with our home addresses, where we would like our potato be delivered, and went to the University, where the buses were waiting for us. After digging them out, we packed the potatoes in bags and waited at the end of our patch of field, near the road. Then, the women, kids and old persons went away on the buses, whereas men loaded the bags and delivered them in accordance with addresses on the labels.”

Marina points out that the potato was the main food in the difficult times of perestroika. Almost all people grew them to have food. She does not know, if the potato commission exists now. Today she does not know any University colleagues who grow potatoes in the perestroika manner. People who do grow them are trying new varieties. They now raise them in their kitchen gardens at houses they have bought in villages around Tomsk. These are not the gardens of the small summer cabins called dachas. These village houses are residences and the kitchen gardens in the villages are big, large enough to raise vegetables and potatoes not only for the family, but sometimes to sell, or feed their pigs and cows.

Nowadays the best potatoes in Tomsk markets come from Tatarian villages on the opposite bank of the Tom River from Tomsk. The natural vegetation there consists of pines and the soil is sandy. Tatarians are the indigenous people of the region. The villagers lives in an area with a very good soil for raising potatoes. The villages are very near Tomsk. Marina emphasizes the cooperation of the Tatarian people, who are Muslims, and non-indigenous residents.  Today Christians and Muslims are we always helping each other in building churches and mosques and taking part in each other’s holy days.

As for varieties Marina’s husband Kolya (Nikolay) who grew up in an Altai steppe village, said the potato from his village was considered to be the best, because it was free of worms and had a floury texture. The potato was very tasty because of the special very sandy soils in the area. Potatoes from Chitinskaya province east of Lake Baikal have similar characteristics. Marina says: “When I cooked these special potatoes, the local men advised me to boil it only for a short time, because if I did not the potato could be destroyed completely”. The story of perestroika potatoes reaches us not only how to grow potatoes in northern climates, but also how to work together in difficult times and develop adaptations to maintain food sustainability

A small potato field at lower right planted outside the city of Tomsk. People sometimes grow potatoes on land that apparently belongs to no one at the outskirts of the town. Photo by Marina Olonova.