George Wicker planted his first potatoes as a teenage boy. One spring, he was given a sack of red Pontiac potatoes by his uncle. He took a spade, turned over the rich deep soil on the roadside outside his family’s farm in Little Hampton, near Trentham.
That autumn, he pulled up the potatoes and sold them by the side of the road. That was over 50 years ago. He has not missed a potato season since then. In fact, there has been a Wicker growing potatoes in the deep, chocolate brown soil around Trentham since the gold rush days. Back then, the country was covered in towering forest, before it was cleared for timber for the gold mines, revealing the fertile soil below. Those potatoes fed the miners who powered the most affluent gold boom in global history.
You can see the deep brown ploughed potato fields in spring and early summer. Later on, the deep green, waist-high plants grow in rows across the rolling hills. Come autumn, the potato plants die off, and the harvesters dig the potatoes up from the ground. Soon after the roadside stalls pop up, little sheds with an honesty box where visitors can buy a bag of freshly dug spuds for just a few bucks. While there are not as many potato farmers as there were in the heydays of the early 20th century, there are still half a dozen farmers in the area. They grow boutique varieties to supply local restaurants, stores, farmers’ markets, and roadside stalls.
In late autumn, the region’s spud culture, history, lore, and culinary legacy is to be celebrated on Saturday, May 2, at the 13th annual Great Trentham Spudfest. This day-long festival spreads across the whole town, in four precincts, offering a wide variety of things to do and see, taste and buy. Here, spud farmers will sell over 24 different varieties of potato, some pulled from the earth the night before the festival. “If you have never had a new season’s potato, straight from the soil, you are missing out on something special,” says George. Food trucks will be serving potato-based dishes such as roast spuds, roesti, patatas bravas, potato scones, potato cakes, mash with sausages, potato and leek soup with RedBeard Historic Bakery potato bread and the famous Trentham CFA Chips. What sets this festival apart, is the bus tours arranged by the local historical society, touring the old sheds that dot the landscape, built to house the seasonal potato diggers. Often WWI veterans seeking out a living in the bush, they’d roam the district, living on basic provisions and harvesting spuds. George Wicker will be there selling his Kennebec, Nicola, King Edward, Sebago and locally bred Coliban potatoes at Spudfest. “When you’re in the area, you have to try our spuds,” he says with a warm smile. “The cool climate kills the bugs in the soil, and the rich earth makes them taste like nothing else.” You can find his roadside stand selling excellent spuds from late summer to spring under a giant old gum tree near 1780 Daylesford – Trentham Road.
Photography by Richard Cornish