Potatoes being inspected and weighed, 1912 (AOT, PH30/1/4936)

Potatoes have thrived in Tasmanian soil since they were first planted from seed at Risdon Cove by Lieutenant Bowen in 1803, and in 1826 the Van Diemen's Land Company sent the first shipload of potatoes from the north-west to Sydney. During the 1840s Depression the market became glutted, but in the 1850s it revived, as the Victorian gold rush population demanded food and potato prices soared. Potatoes flourished in the 'equable' climate and 'decomposed basalt' soil of the north-west, and in August 1890, 41 potato ships left Devonport for Sydney. Agricultural practices were basic. A horse and single-furrow plough churned seed potatoes and fertiliser into the ground at every third furrow. After being harrowed, the emerging crop was scarified and moulded. The most common variety was the Redskin, though around 1880 a German settler grew the Bismark in the south and this also became popular in the north-west. As quality, yields, and acreages grew rapidly, the potato became a valuable export. Experiments were carried out with spacing and fertilisers, the most popular being bonedust, wood ash, and Peruvian guano. By 1900, Tasmania grew 100,000 tonnes of potatoes, including a new potato, pink eye, which thrived at South Arm.

In the early 1900s growers faced soil decline and diseases such as scab, bacterial rots, eelworm and worst of all Irish blight, which devastated crops in 1909. Redskins were especially susceptible and were largely replaced by Bismarks and Brownells. The Potato Act (1909) required growers to eradicate and prevent the spread of disease, mainly by spraying. Sprays composed of bluestone (copper sulphate), quicklime and water, and favourable weather conditions enabled the potato industry to survive.

Growers started to sell immature or new potatoes on the Sydney market from 1914, and production was increased by 'better cultivation, more courageous manuring, and seed selection'. In the 1920s Department of Agriculture officers worked on breeding new varieties, disease control and manuring with superphosphate and sulphate of ammonia. Departmental identification of healthy seed stock culminated in 1930 with the Tasmanian Certified Seed Potato Scheme, and from 1933 the Tewkesbury Potato Station raised 'Mother Seed' for Tasmania's potato industry. Marketing improved from 1927 with the establishment of a producers' co-operative, the Potato Marketing Board. Representatives liaised in Sydney with merchants and shipping companies.

Potato production declined from 1945 due to a drop in demand, lack of shipping and poor wharfing facilities. Problems eased when American-owned Simplot established a processing plant at Ulverstone in 1962, and Edgells produced French fries, which encouraged the growth of suitable varieties, notably Kennebec and Russet Burbank. The processing sector, increasingly operated by multinational companies, overtook the fresh export market by about 1980; by 2000, 400,000 tonnes of potatoes were grown annually for processing. In the 1990s the fresh market was boosted by new, gourmet Dutch varieties such as Royal Blue and Bintje. Growers have been assisted by mechanical developments: local firm Dobmac developed cup and needle planters to replace hand planting, harvesters allowed grading and bagging of potatoes on the machine, and in the 1970s single-row harvesters with bunkers facilitated bulk handling, and dropside bins on trucks reduced damage caused during unloading. Irrigation developments, such as centre pivots, have increased yields. Herbicides proved more effective in controlling disease than previous methods, except for common scab. By demonstrating a capacity to change, the potato industry remains one of Tasmania's most valuable agricultural money-earners.

Further reading: N Barr & J Cary, Greening a brown land, Melbourne, 1992; Potato History Steering Committee, Tasmania's potato history 18032003, Launceston, 2003.

Stefan Petrow