The Crookwell district has long been renowned for the production of seed potatoes with families continuing to satisfy the needs of commercial growers across Australia.
Third generation farmer John Bensley is one who has survived the various trials and successes of growing potatoes on the Southern Tablelands and with his wife Sandra and son Troy will this season harvest 25ha but planning on increasing the area to 40ha.
The Crookwell district has a reputation for the production of disease free seed potatoes because of the cold high altitude of the region.
The Bensley family came to the Crookwell district in the 1870's and Mr Bensley said potatoes have been grown on the family property Stillbrook for over one hundred years.
"In the 1930's and 40's Dad grew potatoes and dug them all by hand," Mr Bensley recalled.
"A lot of the country around Crookwell was improved through growing potatoes in the early days which led to a lot of pasture improvement for their sheep."
Mr Bensley said the Crookwell district was a big producer of commercial potatoes in the early days with many families growing a hectare or two as a sideline to their farms or their jobs.
"I can remember when there were a lot of growers but we are now back to four major producers," he said.
"And we are still producing the same amount and along with growers in the Robertson district we are the main suppliers of seed potatoes in NSW."
A critical point about the production of certified seed potatoes, as explained by Mr Bensley is that the commercial growers don't want over large potatoes to plant.
"They don't like to have to cut them, so we grade before packing to ensure all potatoes we sell are in the size range," he said.
"And prior to harvest, we slash the green tops of the plant to stop it from growing."
Around 12 tonnes/ha is a good yield for seed potatoe production on Stillbrook.
Potato production on Stillbrook complements the Poll Merino stud, commercial Merino ewes and first-cross ewes the Bensley family run on their highly improved property, and cropping fits neatly with the pasture renovation rotation.
"We can't sow potatoes on the same ground for five years although often ii is longer than that before we return to those paddocks," Mr Bensley said.
"The first year out of potatoes we sow a crop of oats, the second year is another crop of oats but undersown with a mixed species pasture."
In a dry year, like last season, the crop can be irrigated drawing water from farm dams.
Several certified seed potato varieties are grown and include Atlantic, Carisma, Pontiac and Sebago and although an export market to Fiji showed some promise, the Stillbrook production is eagerly sought by commercial growers in the eastern states of Australia.
The changing face of commercial potato production in those states is highlighted when an area like the Atherton Tablelands in far northern Queensland which used to be a big producer but now its output is in decline.
:"We used to supply that area with a lot of seed potatoes but other areas have taken over, like Virginia in South Australia," Mr Bensley said.
"Berrigan and Narrandera in the Riverina are also big producers of commercial potatoes."
Other major growing areas to which Stillbrook-grown certified seed potatoes are sold include Bathurst, Cowra, Maitland and Bundaberg in Queensland.
The original first-generation tubers are purchased by the Bensley's from growers in either South Australia or Tasmania.
The mini-tubers (not much larger than the tip of your small finger) had been grown from tissue culture and Mr Bensley explained it takes him five generations of growing those mini-tubers before he has sufficient seed potatoes to grow a commercial crop.
"We always have the generations coming through so there isn't a break in our production," he said.
"So the planting, harvesting and selling can be very hectic at times especially as it is a family operation with only casual labour at peak times."
With pests and disease threatening the livelihood of Crookwell district growers, they have their unique Quality Assurance (QA) program which ensures the integrity of the certified seed potatoes sold.
"We have our own rules but also abide by the standard rules which are accepted across Australia," Mr Bensley said.
"We aim at producing a premium product and so we have confidence in our local QA program."
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