Pemberton potatoes are virus-free. The geographic isolation of the Pemberton Valley, one hour north of Whistler, has made it a world-wide source of virus-free seed potatoes. Thanks to this agricultural innovation, potato famines may never happen again to the extent that they did in the past.
Potatoes first came to Fort Langley, BC in 1827 with the Hudson Bay Company. Potatoes were not new to the Americas; they have been grown in the Andean Mountains of South America for at least 4,000 years and at least 5,000 varieties have been determined.
The Spanish conquistadors brought potatoes from South America to Europe in the 1500s. At first the European peasants were suspicious of this new crop. In 1770 Antoine-Augustin Parmentier had a fence built around a supposedly top-secret potato plot at the Palace of Versailles – people were so curious that they raided the field, planted the potatoes they found, and Potage Parmentier (a potato and leek soup) was one of the delicious consequences. The crop was easy to grow, and kept the family food supply safe from marauding armies because the tubers grew underground. A family could live on potatoes if required. Although all the green parts are poisonous, the tubers provide carbohydrate, protein, and potassium as well as Vitamins C and B6 and some trace nutrients. Only Vitamin D is missing, and that can be obtained from sunshine. The renowned Smithsonian Institute claims that potatoes “changed the world” by preventing famines that had crippled Europe.
Then came the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, a direct consequence of mono-cropping, overdependence on one source of food and horrific neglect by Great Britain of its Irish people. There is a direct link between the Irish Potato Famine and the success of the potato-growing industry in Pemberton, BC. The blight that destroyed crops overnight and caused at least one million people to starve to death (and another two million to leave Ireland) was spread by a virus.
While the exact connection can’t be clearly traced, early records indicate that the growing of potatoes was adopted quickly by the Lil’wat Nation who have lived around Pemberton for thousands of years. Potato cultivation fit readily into their gardening/food gathering practices because the women already planted and dug up bitterroot and other root-type plants (Suttles, 1954). The potato is said to have made it to Pemberton before the Gold Rush miners of the 1860s.
The Pemberton Valley is isolated from other potato-growing areas and provided ideal growing conditions for potatoes: it was perfect for creating a virus-free potato zone. In 1945 Pemberton was designated a Seed Potato Control Zone and by 1965 it was certified as a Potato Virus Free Station. Since then, no outside seed potatoes may be planted in the valley. If residents want to grow potatoes they need to go to the Women’s Institute or Home Hardware to get locally-approved seed potatoes. While the area’s overall contribution to potato farming in Canada is very small ((only about 17 growers) the potatoes of Pemberton are worth seeking out if only for the sake of “eating history”.
The BC Food History website has many lesson plan ideas for incorporating food history into foods classes.
Suttles, W. (1954). Post-contact culture changes among the Lummi Indians. British Columbia Historical Quarterly, 18 (1/2), 29-99.