On the island of Noirmoutier, bathed by the Atlantic and connected to France by a bridge nearly 600m long, the first crops of early potatoes were not planted yesterday. They date back to the end of the 18th century. The island enjoys 2,200 hours of sunshine a year, with typical temperatures higher than on the Continent.
The prized tuber has long been cultivated in the island’s sandy soils, between the sea and salt marshes, with a traditional savoir-faire passed down from generation to generation.
The market gardeners of Noirmoutier acquired a good reputation for their excellent tubers as early as 1875. With the emergence of improved varieties in the 1920s, Bonnotte was introduced to the island and became a benchmark of high quality. A farmer’s union was founded on the island in 1939, supplemented by the creation of an agricultural co-operative for producers.
In 1950, 4,000t of early potatoes were produced. Today, production has eased back to around 1,200t across 450ha. Yields are relatively modest for this short production cycle: Between 18 and 25t/ha. The most important thing is that the tradition is kept alive: 25 farmers in the co-operative cultivate varieties chosen for the tenderness of their flesh.
A top quality early potato
Why is this potato so unusual? On the one hand, it stands out because it matures early – thanks to the mild climate, planting can begin in the middle of winter, in January. Harvesting begins two months later, in mid-March. The last lifting takes place by the end of August at the latest. Due to this short growing period, the island yields a remarkable tuber, distinguished by its fine skin and its low dry matter content, at most 22%.
When cooked, it has a creamy texture and sweet flavour, making it a success with connoisseurs. Its characteristics are accurately described by the following target specification: “Tubers of a size of no less than 17mm and no more than 70mm, with a permitted difference in each package of not more than 25mm.” A handful of varieties are chosen in Noirmoutier for their tender and tasty yellow flesh: Sirtema, Lady Christ’l and Bonnotte. All have to be included in a list selected by the producer group.
“It took us some 15 years to obtain the Protected Geographical Indications (PGI) marque,” says Nicolas Paille, director of the Noirmoutier Agricultural Co-operative. “We have benefited from recognition at European Union level since July 2020. This status offers our product protection and ensures that our sales volumes are monitored. Our first real PGI campaign will take place in 2021.”
Prior to obtaining the PGI, the co-operative took another step forward by launching “zero pesticide residue” potatoes. In 2019, it also obtained the red label standard for three varieties; Sirtema, Iodéa and Lady Christ’l. This ensures top quality at all stages of production, from pre-germinating seedlings on site to ridge planting and controlled irrigation to mechanical defoliation. Each step, from receiving the seedlings to measuring the end product, is carried out in the geographical area. “The entire crop monitoring process is computerised and centralised, so that each batch is fully traceable,” adds Mr Paille.
In winter, the seedlings undergo a pre-sprouting stage, lasting at least eight days before they start to germinate in the producer’s soil. Mechanical planting is only permitted from March 10. Before this date, the seeds must be planted manually. Producers then use different blade or jaw bucket systems. “All our potatoes are planted using these techniques in wide ridges,” explains Patrick Michaud, president of the co-operative. “They remain in the ground for about 90 days. The plots are fertilised as much as possible with local seaweed and cattle manure. We also do a lot of manual work during the first grubbing to avoid shocks, as the tubers are fragile.”
The early potato has an advantage: It does not need to be stored. “Every potato that is picked from the fields is washed, sorted, measured and bagged the same day to be stacked on the supermarket shelf,” says Mr Paille. “Forty-eight hours after being harvested, our fresh produce can be found on the shelves of small and large supermarkets – it’s a real guarantee of freshness.” To make this system work, the co-operative has invested in optical sorters capable of processing more than 300t per day.
As in the past, the farmers of Noirmoutier manage small plots of land, most often handed down from generation to generation. The average plot size is just 3,000m2. “Our members cultivate an average of 10-15ha – and potatoes are grown only once every five years,” says Mr Michaud. “This is done to avoid problems caused by parasites. What’s more, the plots of land intended for PGI production must be cultivated once a year.” The aim of the PGI is to protect the sector, and not to increase the cropped area.
The island of Noirmoutier has seen rapid tourist development over the past 20 years, which has eaten into the arable land. Fortunately, it is still not possible to build on part of the island’s marshland. “Our approach is not an isolated one,” concludes Mr Michaud. “In addition to early potatoes, the island’s producers have also started to certify other local resources: Salt, oysters and certain fish products.”