28 August 2020

Have these Crookwell farmers unearthed the state's best spuds?

| Hannah Sparks
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Garry Kadwell and Wentworth Hill

Garry Kadwell and Wentworth Hill with the award-winning Andean Sunrise Potato. Photo: Supplied.

Garry Kadwell and Wentworth Hill have been on a three-year mission to grow the best-tasting spuds and their recent win is encouraging.

The Andean Sunrise Potato they planted in the potato growing region of Crookwell about 15 years ago was a gold medallist in the Delicious Harvey Norman Produce Awards announced on 20 August.

It was also the only single potato variety in New South Wales to win.

The nutty flavoured and waxy textured variety caught Mr Kadwell’s interest when the ants in his paddock were eating rows and rows of the first plantings.

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“I thought they had clearly found something nutritious, that it was nature’s way of judging what we had planted. Then it was a long slog to learn how to grow the variety because it’s a wild potato, so it’s not perfect in shape or blemish-free, but those qualities are far outweighed by the nutritional and eating qualities,” the fourth-generation potato farmer said.

Mr Kadwell has been farming potatoes since the age of 12 and eventually became frustrated with growing potatoes that were low in flavour and nutrition, driven by the multinational buyers.

“The problem is we have gone for vegetables that look good and have a long shelf life but not those that taste good or have good nutritional value,” he said.

“I could see a real niche that the big producers couldn’t cater for – growing flavoursome and highly nutritious potatoes in the right soil.”

That was when Mr Kadwell partnered with Mr Hill, who could assist with marketing and finding suppliers for their business, The Gourmet Potato – Kadwell.

“I’d moved to the country and wanted to produce from nature’s best. Gary and I met about ten years ago and five years ago we started exploring the flavours with Annette,” Mr Hill said.

Central to their success was Mr Hill’s wife, Annette Hill, who spent hours in the kitchen learning how to cook with the varieties they were considering planting.

“Annette did a huge amount of work so we were able to explain to people what the flavour and textures of these potatoes were and how to cook with them,” Mr Hill said.

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Chefs including Neil Perry, Guillaume Brahimi, Matt Moran and Danielle Alvarez have since cooked with Mr Kadwell and Mr Hill’s Andean Sunrise Potatoes and the other varieties the pair grows including Red Blush and Royal Ascot Potatoes.

“A lot of people haven’t been exposed to flavoursome potatoes and because the mass-marketed potatoes are flavourless, chefs have been cooking potatoes for years with sauces to add flavour. People have been amazed by trying these potatoes and there has been a great hunger for the knowledge of how to cook them,” Mr Hill said.

However, the most important factor to the flavour and nutritional value of these potatoes has not been their choice of varieties but their care of the soil they are grown in, Mr Kadwell said.

“The soil is the priority. You can make all varieties of potatoes taste good with the right soil,” he said.

Mr Kadwell also spent the past three years experimenting with farming techniques including adding live bacteria and seaweed to the soil to add nutrition to the potatoes.

“The mainstream potato growing areas have sandy soil, which means the potatoes are easy to harvest but the sand has no ability to hold nutrition, so the only nutrition the potatoes are getting is what they absorb through water,” Mr Kadwell said.

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“The soils around Crookwell are naturally fertile and resilient but because we have used traditional chemical fertilisers for years we have had to correct the pH of the soil. We now make our own compost and add minerals to the soil. We are even sap testing the plants on a fortnightly basis to see which minerals are missing.”

A bumper season

The pair is also celebrating a bumper crop after writing the 2020 potato growing season off in January.

“It started off as a shocker,” Mr Hill said.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a harder season than the one we saw through November, December and January,” Mr Kadwell said.

After months of drought, the ground was too dry to plant and so Mr Kadwell and Mr Hill decided to keep their potato seeds in cold storage for two additional months.

“We were facing a total disaster but fortunately we made some radical decisions like keeping the seeds in storage,” Mr Kadwell said.

By February, the skies had opened and the rain Mr Kadwell and other farmers in the district were praying for soaked the soils.

“The quantity and quality of the crop we produced in the toughest season has been the biggest shock of my life,” Mr Kadwell said.

The potato harvest season is finished for now and growing will begin again this summer.

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