Tuesday, 15 January 2008

The Year of the Potato

2008 is the United Nations Year of the Potato. Potatoes are a major component of U.N. strategies to provide nutritious food to the poor and the hungry. Potatoes can be grown world wide, they are nutritious, relatively quick to grow and an effective use of land as 85 per cent of the potato plant is edible. Potatoes have been grown in the Andes for over 8000 years and came to Europe via the Spaniards in the 16th century and then spread throughout the world. 

They have been grown in the Casey Cardinia Region since the start of European settlement, particularly at Gembrook and on the Koo-Wee-Rup Swamp. The earliest mention of potato growing I can find is at Berwick in the 1850s, where they were transported to the gold fields at Castlemaine and Bendigo. The Backhouse brothers, at Gembrook, were digging 5 tons of potatoes to the acre in 1877, only four years after European settlement began in Gembrook in 1873. The western end of the Koo-Wee-Rup Swamp was said to have produced 3000 tons of potatoes in 1894, just one year after the blocks were allocated to settlers, after the major drainage works. 

Potatoes have also been instrumental in the establishment of local Railway lines. It was recognized from the start that potato traffic would be a mainstay of both the "Puffing Billy" line which reached Gembrook in 1900 and the Strezlecki line from Koo-Wee-Rup to Bayles, Catani and beyond which opened in 1922. Koo-Wee-Rup celebrated the potato at their annual Potato Festival, which ran from 1973 until 2000. Potatoes are still a valuable contributor to the local economy. In 2001 the gross economic value of potatoes to the Casey Cardinia Region was over $19.7 million , with the bulk of that, $18.5 million, coming from the traditional potato growing areas of Gembrook and the Koo-Wee-Rup Swamp in the Cardinia Shire. Casey Cardinia settlers have known the value of the humble spud for over 150 years and it good to see that it has now been recognised by the United Nations. 

Frank Rouse grew potatoes on the Koo-Wee-Rup Swamp at Cora Lynn for 57 years, until his retirement from the potato business in 2007. This photograph was taken in 1968 for a fertiliser company.

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