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Famous Potatoes 

by Marty Demarest


If the potato industry had rock stars, Brent Olsen would be Bob Dylan. As it is, the potato farmer has spent the last week on the agricultural equivalent of an album tour. From his farm north of Spokane, Olsen has been traveling coastward, delivering his products to restaurants and markets. When I caught him this past Saturday morning, he was busy at the University Farmers' Market in Seattle. "I'm kind of rushing to get ready," he laughed good-naturedly. The next morning, we were unable to talk due to preparations for his appearance at Pike Place Market. In Spokane, assistants manned the Olsen Farm stand. In true celebrity fashion, it's sometimes easier to talk to the people around Brent Olsen.


"We love their stuff," enthuses Luna's executive chef Shilo Pierce. "Everything Olsen Farms puts out is amazing."


Chefs like Pierce draw their inspiration from the work of farmers like Olsen. The farm's potatoes are served at Luna, Paprika, Mizuna -- often with a note on the menu indicating where they're from. They're the main ingredient in Hill's Someplace Else's outstanding fries. And in addition to the farmer's market, they're sold uncooked at the Rocket Market, Huckleberry's, and occasionally several of the Yoke's stores in Spokane.


"It enhances everything about the food," Pierce says, explaining why he uses Olsen Farms' products every time a potato is needed at Luna. "The flavor, the texture, the color -- it all makes a huge difference. Using produce from Olsen Farms is just like going out to your garden to get what you need. It's that much better."


The analogy isn't too far from the truth. Olsen Farms is a family operation that started eight years ago in Aladdin, Wash., north of Colville, when Merna Olsen and her son Brent decided to sell off some of the extra produce their two acres had yielded. "We were a very small market affair," she says. "And at the time, we had other vegetables. Now we do about 17 acres. All of that is potatoes."


Among the 26 varieties that Olsen Farms grows are familiar standbys, like Yukon Golds, and more exotic types like Sangres, which are waxy red potatoes, and Red Thumb Fingerlings, which have slender shapes and delicate pink interiors. "We do Viking Purple," Merna Olsen adds. "It's purple with pink swirls, and it's white inside. There are the maroon-colored Huckleberry potatoes. And of course there are the spudnuts."


Ah, the spudnuts. What Merna is referring to are the loose, tiny, jewel-colored potatoes that the farm sells in mixed batches. "We get five-pound bags in here," Pierce at Luna explains, "and they look like bags of marbles. They're beautiful."


"Like gumballs," is how Merna Olsen describes a batch of them. But her son has another perspective.


"Very popular," he explains, finally taking a break to chat via cell phone from a highway rest area. "The spudnuts are very popular. And they're delicious. Since they're smaller, they have a more intense flavor. So we sell a lot of them."


The taste, as Brent Olsen makes clear, is the major selling point of all of Olsen Farm's potatoes. Colors, shapes and varieties are one thing, but nobody eats food based only on its appearance. "I'm confident that we grow the best-tasting potato possible," he continues. "If we can get people to taste them, it makes a big difference. About five or six years ago, I went to Taste of Washington, and people were skeptical. But at the end of the day, we were probably one of the top-grossing farms there."


The sales have increased the farm's workload. "It's exhausting, but it's exciting. This last Saturday, we were at four different markets," Brent Olsen explains. "Some friends and relatives help run them, because I can't be at all of them. Merna keeps things running on the farm. Obviously, right now, it's harvest time, so it's the busiest time of the year. A lot of the varieties have to be dug by hand, and that takes extra time, and they all have to be cleaned. Right now our sheds are at full capacity."


And this is the yield of a small year. Since Olsen Farms doesn't use pesticides or irrigate its fields, its harvest can change dramatically based on the weather. But it's clear from the demand that anything that they can produce will sell.


"We have restaurants we sell to in Seattle, and we have sold to wine-tasting dinners in Yakima. We've even sent potatoes to the James Beard House," he says, casually dropping the name of the gathering place of the world's greatest chefs. "And, of course, there are the stores and restaurants in Spokane. I call it the potato revolution," he laughs. "People know they like potatoes, and they cook with them sometimes for three meals a day. But they don't know what potatoes can taste like. But once they buy them, or maybe they eat them at a restaurant, it gets them excited.


"Let's just say," Olsen concludes, "that I am not having a problem getting rid of them."





Publication date: 10/02/03

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