Fresh off the success of two back-to-back inaugural celebrations last weekend – CarnEvil and Harvest Festival – Newport Vineyards is celebrating something new this week: the Aquidneck Island potato. A potato-themed Restaurant Week Menu debuted at Brix Restaurant and The Vineyard Cafe, and spuds lovers are rejoicing over creations that celebrate Aquidneck Island’s rich history in potato farming.
Though today there are less than 200 acres dedicated to potato farming on the island, potatoes used to be the largest grown crop on Aquidneck Island with over 1,000 acres of potato farmland, including the land of Perry Farm that is now harvested for Newport Vineyards vines. “We owe much of our rich soil that harvest our vines to years of potato farming that took place on the same land,” said Newport Vineyards owner John Nunes. “As an agritourism business it seemed only right to honor the agriculture before us that provided the island with business, produce and economy.”
This week’s spuds-themed menu was crafted from scratch by Newport Vineyards Executive Chef Andy Teixeira and Food & Beverage Director Trisha Greene. Loaded Portsmouth Potato Soup, House-made Sausage & Potato Quiche, Braised Veal, Mushroom Ragout and Aquidneck Gnocchi are just a few of their creations you don’t want to miss. But hurry – Newport Restaurant week will be over before you can count to three potato.
Aquidneck Island Potato Facts:
The potato was the largest grown crop on Aquidneck Island peaking in the 1970s with over 1000 acres. There are less than 200 acres today.
The majority of potatoes were sold to the Frito-Lay chip factory in Fall River until the plant closed in the early 1980s and moved to Connecticut.
The popular potato was the “657” – a yellow flesh potato with thin skin that was perfect for chips. It also stored very well. Many other “baking” style potatoes were grown for the “fresh market” – or wholesale to grocery stores.
The sizing of potatoes was determined by USDA as to what would be sold as a #1 or #2 grade. USDA reports 346 acres exist in RI today vs. 458 in 2008. A 25% decrease.
Smaller below grade potatoes in the 70s were sold for pennies as pig feed. Today they fetch top dollar as gourmet potatoes.
Typical yield is approximately 250 bags of 100lbs (hundred weight). Some years as high as 500 but that was unusual and only on the best fields. Crop is down this year due to drought.
The prices paid by the chip factory were set by contract and were often based on how well the crop was in the southeast. The crop would start in Florida and move up the coast with RI harvesting most in August.
Aquidneck Island was ideal for potatoes due to its naturally low soil pH.
From July to November it was common to see the trucks filled with tons of potatoes heading to the chip plant in Fall River.
The farms used large mechanical harvesters that would dig the potatoes. They also provided jobs to many of the local youths that would help sort, size, clean and “pick rocks”.
The “Big” Farms in the 1970s on Aquidneck Island:
- Silvia Farm – Middletown 300+ acres
- Perry Farm – Middletown 275 acres
- Lacerda Farm – Portsmouth 150+ acres (80 today)
- Quonset View – Portsmouth 150+ acres (80 today)
- Maplewood Farm – Portsmouth 450+ acres (18 today)