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You could say that dirt is not only under the nails of Norman Gair and Robyn Jackson from Highland Gourmet Potatoes—it’s in their blood. Norm and Robbie are the driving force behind Highland Gourmet Potatoes, a mostly family affair at Wildes Meadow in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. Both are locals who grew up farming in the area. Robbie’s grandfather was a potato grower in Robertson—she remembers picking up chats left in the field after harvest when she was young—while Norm grew up at nearby Fitzroy Falls. I catch Norman and Robyn in their morning tea break; they’ve been out on the farm already this morning tending their crop. ‘We harvest our potatoes for the markets every week; we don’t put them in cold storage,’ Norm explains.
Highland Gourmet Potatoes grows more than 30 varieties of potatoes with about a dozen or so key varieties that sell consistently well. ‘Each year we drop a couple of the less popular varieties that weren’t as successful, and try a couple of new ones,’ Norm says. ‘This means we can also play with varieties that larger commercial growers can’t. At the moment we’re growing a New Zealand native variety for next year, as well as growing two varieties by tissue culture from seed stock held at Toolangi Research Station. ‘These varieties—Maris Piper and Jersey Royal—are from the UK and we’re often asked about them. If we’re lucky, we’ll have these by Christmas 2014—it’s a long process,’ Robbie explains.
Norm and Robbie’s farm is unique in that it’s one of the smallest potato farms in the region at around 16 acres. ‘We’re too small to supply businesses wholesale, even though many people ask us to,’ Norm says—including some of Sydney’s high-profile restaurants—‘and growing potatoes is labour intensive—we only have a 1969 tractor, and some varieties have to be picked up by hand, particularly the new, early harvest potatoes where the skins haven’t “set” or hardened.’ Highland Gourmet Potatoes are exclusively sold at farmers’ markets in the Sydney region from Eveleigh and Pyrmont to Camden and Bowral. ‘We love what we do,’ Robbie says. ‘We’ve chosen a deliberate path to supply local farmers’ markets because there’s nothing more satisfying than talking to your customers—it’s a passion for us. ‘There are so many different varieties, flavours, textures and colours of potatoes—they can be waxy, floury, firm, pink, purple, yellow skinned, white or cream flesh. We encourage people to try something they haven’t eaten before and change their buying habits. ‘We also see ourselves as having an important part to play in maintaining the diversity potatoes,’ Robbie says. ‘We keep seed growers supplying the seeds and are working with seed banks and researchers to develop local varieties.’ And Norm and Robbie test-drive every variety themselves. ‘We have at least two or three types of potatoes for dinner every night and we cook them in different ways to find the best way our customers can eat them, although experimenting for themselves is always encouraged.’