Community in profile: Potato farmer Bernie White

POTATOES: Fourth generation farmer Bernie White is one of the founders of Spud Fest, which is now in its 11th year. Photo: Dylan Burns
POTATOES: Fourth generation farmer Bernie White is one of the founders of Spud Fest, which is now in its 11th year. Photo: Dylan Burns

Bernie White is a softly spoken man with an interesting story to tell. He spoke to The Advocate about potato farming, Spud Fest and the changing industry.

HIS FARM 

Bernie White left school at 14 years old to farm the family land. He is a fourth generation farmer who has been farming for upwards of 40 years. 

“When I left school back in the Bungaree district, we started off renting land, then we bought at Fern Hill. I then bought this place in 1974,” he said. 

A number of Trentham potato families go back as late as the 1860’s, including the Walshes, Brutons, Dunns and Wickers. 

Mr White has 400 acres left of his property, some of which he rents out. He continues to grow potatoes, grain and graze about 1100 first cross border lester merino sheep. 

He said during the time he had worked the land, Australian farming had changed dramatically.

“Potato farming has changed dramatically over the years because of different cooking styles, diets and other trends,” he said.

He said the biggest strain on Australian potato farmers was cheap imports. 

“Potato farming has gone to wreck because of all the imports. When we came here 40 years ago, there were 65 potato growers in Trentham. Now there are only six left. It has been a dramatic change. 

“Working and working just to break even isn’t easy. It can be a strain,” he said. 

Technology has also been a problem. 

“The other big problem with farming now is the high price of machinery. When I left school, the biggest tractor we had was 60 horse power. Now they’re about 350 and 400 horse power. It’s amazing. Millions and millions of dollars worth of machinery, tractors and big harvesters used to dig spuds are imported from Europe.”

He said he did not have a farming secret, but did use a technique.

“The biggest thing for high potato crops is long rotations between paddocks. We also have lots of irrigation,” he said. 

He continues to run his farm, mostly on his own, but employs a number of part-timers and contractors from neighbouring farms to help with physical labour. 

When we came here 40 years ago, there were 65 potato growers in Trentham. Now there are only six left. It has been a dramatic change.

Bernie White

HIS POTATOES

Potatoes have a rich history and have long been a staple of many different cuisines. The humble potato originates from South America and there are now more than 1000 different varieties grown worldwide. 

About 35 of these different varieties of potato are grown in Trentham.

Mr White said the reason spuds grow so well in Trentham was the soil. 

“The Trentham soil is fantastic to grow potatoes in because it’s volcanic. It holds moisture very well,” Mr White said.

The average potato takes between 120 and 150 days to grow. 

Mr White said train loads of potatoes were shipped out of Trentham in the past but it had now become a much smaller operation. 

He has become more of a boutique farmer and sells his produce at farm gate sales and weekend markets. 

He supplies IGA in Trentham and Kyneton and restaurants like Holgate’s in Woodend, Chaplain’s restaurant in Trentham and Awkward Jeffrey’s restaurant in Daylesford, which make chips out of his Purple Majesty potatoes.

He said his spuds were different to the average supermarket spuds, which were now mostly imported by the Australia’s big potato processors. 

“My potatoes come from such beautiful soil so you can still taste the earth in them and they keep better,” Mr White said.

HIS SPUD FEST

The idea for Spud Fest came about 11 years ago when Trentham needed a boost.

“It was the year of the potato and another fellow, White, of no relation, suggested we should have a Spud Fest. I thought it would be good to advertise Trentham and make it more well-known. I will get involved in anything to help Trentham,” he said.

The town wanted to be proud of its heritage and showcasing their potatoes seemed like the perfect way to do so. 

Mr White said Spud Fest continues to evolve. It started out as a few stalls in the park, but is now spread around the whole of Trentham. The first festival had about 1500 people coming along but over the years it has grown and grown. Last year there was between 6500 and 7000 people. 

This year, Mr White has planted Dutch Cremes, Nicola, Purple Majesty and Desiree potatoes to sell at the festival on the back of his truck in 2kg and 4kg packs.

He said they Dutch Cremes were a brilliant masher and good for scalloped potato, while Nicola was a great roaster, masher and chip. 

Purple Majesty, however, had the same taste as a normal potato but was very popular as it was said to be high in antioxidants. He said it made a good gnocchi.

Finally, he said Desiree worked well in a  potato salad or as a mash. 

He estimated that he would sell at least a couple of tonnes at this year’s festival.

The festival has upped Trentham’s tourism and brings a lot of money into the town, which is now known as the ‘potato town’. 

A portion of the profit from Spud Fest goes to the CFA and netball and football clubs.

This year’s festival will include cooking demonstrations, tractor pull, live music, a horse and cart doing a circuit of Trentham, history display, the Cool Country Classics Car Club, plenty of food and kids activities. 

HIS FUTURE

Mr White said he would continue farming for as long as he is able, as he was the last of his family on the land. 

“I’d like to keep going for a few more years. If the spud job packs up I’d like to keep running sheep and grain,” Mr White said.

He initially had hoped his son would continue to run the farm, but the financial difficulties due to imports made that future impossible.

Mr White said his favourite dishes were scalloped, roasted and mashed potatoes: “Nicola and Dutch Creme are tops but Desiree is good too”.