Sonoma County family grows potatoes with pluck and passion


Issue Date: October 12, 2005
Jim Morris

As they dig their hands into the rich soil of Sonoma County and pluck out prime potatoes, you can't blame Tom and Heidi Kirkland for feeling all is right in their universe.

Potatoes have been a central part of the Kirklands' lives for generations. Their spuds are grown on part of the farm started more than 150 years ago by Tom's great-grandfather William, who survived the Irish potato famine.

Tom's grandfather Thomas or "Papa Tom" maintained the family tradition for 50 years, before literally dying in the barn.

"I'm very proud of our history," Tom said. "I used to hang out with my grandfather, watch him sort potatoes and help him once in a while."

After other farming ventures, the family four years ago headed back to potatoes, though in a different way than their predecessors.

Tom and Heidi's "Oh! Tommy Boy's" farm is home to 30 varieties of spuds that are sold on site, at farmers' markets, and to discriminating chefs and retailers in northern California and in the wine country.

Their potatoes are dry farmed; meaning rainfall solely irrigates their fields. They typically grow about 90,000 pounds of spuds a year, though excessive rains this season mean a lighter crop.

Varieties include the yellow-fleshed German Butterball that's excellent for mashing, La Ratte, a favorite of Thomas Keller of the famed French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, Peruvian Purple, which is loaded with antioxidants and was the first variety ever grown and, their most popular, the red and white striped Candy Cane.

"Their potatoes just taste better," said Fred Langley, chef/owner of Langley's on the Green in Windsor, Sonoma County, who took his staff to the farm for an educational tour.

"When Tom and Heidi's potatoes come into our restaurant, we can imagine the ground that they came out of," he said. "We can see Tom and Heidi sorting them in their 100-year-old barn. To be a part of their passion and carry that through to the guest is really important."

Fall is a hectic time on this farm located between Petaluma and the coast. You'll often find Tom and Heidi in the field, working from first light to past sun down, using a century-old digger and plenty of hand labor to dig out the tasty tubers.

(Jim Morris is a reporter for Ag Alert. He may be contacted at jmorris@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.