When it comes to potato farms and farmers in Rhode Island, the premise behind the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game – that everyone can connect themselves to the actor through relationships with six other people – rings true. Except in the Ocean State it’s Six Degrees of John Peckham because most of the few potato farmers who grow spuds here can trace their lineage to him. Peckham was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1200s, and his descendants came to the Newport/Middletown area from England in the 1600s, where they became prominent landowners and prolific farmers, digging deep roots in the community.
Jason “Pete” Peckham is one such descendant. The 82-year-old has been growing potatoes since he was six and he’s never really wanted to do anything else. And who could blame him? His Ferolbink Farm in Tiverton is 300 acres along the east passage of Narragansett Bay. It’s been in the Peckham family since the 1940s and is named for his parents – his mother’s first name was Ferol and his father’s nickname was Bink. (On the subject of names, “Pete” is not Peckham’s name at all. “My sisters renamed me when I was a baby,” he explains with a laugh, saying that they didn’t like his given name Jason, so Pete stuck for life.)
Peckham has been offered millions for the farm time and again, both for its picturesque location among the salt marshes of Tiverton and its carbon-rich soil with water-holding capacity. But he’s always said no. “I enjoy working the fields and watching things grow,” he explains matter-of-factly.
There are seven types of potatoes: russet, red, white, yellow, blue, fingerling, and petite, and within those types there are multiple varieties. They are packed with minerals and every vitamin except A and D. With Rhode Island being the second-most “Irish” state after Massachusetts, many locals can trace roots back to ancestors who came here to escape the Irish Potato Famine in the 1850s. Potatoes are about as versatile as a food can get – that’s why the average American eats about 120 pounds of taters a year.
Peckham grows many things at Ferolbink, but potatoes are the star and the main crop is the Norwis variety – a soft, mild, yellow, all-purpose kind. Norwis potatoes were originally bred for use as Lay’s potato chips, the company Peckham grew for in the 1980s and ‘90s. He sold many tons to the Lay’s factory in Fall River, where it was referred to as their 657 potato. It’s pretty much the perfect variety for making mashed potatoes and French fries. “It’s fluffy, so it absorbs the flavors of whatever you’re cooking it with,” he says.
Knowing the versatility of the Norwis and the fact that potatoes were one of Rhode Island’s largest crops, back in 2009 Peckham and a few other potato farmers in Portsmouth, Little Compton, and Westport took a move out of Rhody Fresh Milk’s playbook, and began a potato cooperative, marketing Narragansett Premium Potatoes – AKA the Norwis potato. They were sold directly to independent supermarkets. Peckham also sells to local schools and hospitals but is slowing his pace in recent years. “It costs about $3,000 to farm each acre of potatoes,” he says, making it one of the most expensive crops around, with the rising costs of labor, fertilizer, and other associated costs. Plus, harvesting potatoes is tough and dirty, he says. Picking your own potatoes doesn’t say “family fun” the way, say, picking your own strawberries does.
Peckham’s nephew and niece, Tyler and Karla Young, did, however, start their Young Family Farm in a fashion that would make Martha Stewart proud: by selling their own strawberries in the front lawn of their Little Compton home. The couple purchased the land in the 1990s and their three daughters helped with those first years’ worth of fresh fruits and vegetables, growing a single table into an actual farmstand. Down the road a bit from Ferolbink Farm and close to a cousin’s Wishing Stone Farm, the Young family farms 300 acres of land, harvesting three seasons’ worth of berries, zucchini, corn, eggplant, squash, apples, and potatoes.
The Youngs grow roughly 20 potato varieties over about 100 acres. Among those varieties, Norwis is the most prominent, just like at uncle Pete’s farm. Most of the Youngs’ Norwis potatoes are sent to a local processor that peels and cuts them for restaurant use. Reds, yellows, and whites are shipped straight from the field to a fresh packer in Boston. Unlike many locally harvested vegetables and fruits, potatoes don’t come with the romance associated with a heaping container of blueberries or craggy heirloom tomatoes; they aren’t flying off the farmstand the way other produce might. Marketing them requires more work and cost, but spuds are still the Youngs’ jam. “I love growing potatoes,” Tyler Young says. “It’s an addiction.”
A few years back, Pete Peckham opened a small bed and breakfast on his Tiverton property. The acres of farmland and salty breeze coming in from Narragansett Bay a short distance away create an almost Napa Valley-like atmosphere: just substitute potatoes for grapes. Peckham’s son-in-law, Aaron DeRego, now the chef/owner of the Red Dory Restaurant in Tiverton, helped Peckham use his home crop in delicious ways, turning the potatoes into meals for the guests. Sure, B&B guests may love a glass of wine from grapes grown yards away, but a scrumptious Spanish frittata made with just-picked potatoes brings a lot of happiness, too, DeRego reasoned. And it was true. “Everyone should eat a potato every single day,” Peckham says. “I do. Baked or boiled and roasted – I get them in somehow.”
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