In May 2001 the president took part in the subbotnik (voluntary labor day) in the village of Atolino village, Minsk District. Together with the villagers he planted potatoes. Much has changed since then. The old-style kolkhozes are now a thing of the past. In a modern agro-industrial complex you may keep your boots clean but still you will have to work hard. The potato cultivation technology has also changed. It is done manually perhaps only in household vegetable gardens. Whatever the changes, potatoes still remain an essential part of our diet. In the new episode of BelTA’s YouTube project “After the Fact: Lukashenko’s Decisions” we will tell why Belarusians cannot live without this root vegetable. What are the most delicious varieties? And how many times a week does the president eat potatoes?
When was potato brought to Belarus?
Most potatoes presently cultivated worldwide descend from varieties that originated in Chile, Bolivia and Peru. The tropical root vegetable was first brought to the Belarusian lands at the time of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was a delicacy then. Mass cultivation began in the middle of the 18th century. At first it was grown mainly in the Grodno region and only a hundred years later in all Belarusian regions. Gradually it turned into the main national vegetable, which is why we are jokingly nicknamed bulbash or potato (bulba in Belarusian) lovers.
“We are called bulbash but “bulba” itself is no longer the same as it used to be. This year we will complete the development of a special program. We will decide how much we need for the domestic market, how much we will export. But we will re-focus on this crop, which is most valuable to us. It is very cost-effective and promising,” the head of state said during a working trip to Vitebsk Oblast on 20 August 2009.
Potato growing in sovereign Belarus got an increased focus at the suggestion of the president. The president learned all the nuances of cultivating the vegetable at a time when he was head of a farm. On a national scale, there were many issues to be solved. These included the revision of the seed production system, setting up specialty farms, building storage facilities and logistics centers.
“Today, potatoes and other agricultural products are as valuable as gold. They are more profitable than oil. Potatoes ensure 100% profitability. It will be higher given the current prices… But we do not have sufficient storage capacity. Keeping it in storage pits won’t do. After all you will not bury your family jewels in the ground, right? Today our agri-products are as precious. We need to find where to store the harvest. I instructed the agriculture minister and the prime minister, governors to find, within three days, places and store potatoes and vegetables there. There is no need to sell our harvest now, at least not all of it. We need to hold it and sell it later when prices are three times higher,’ the head of state said at the sixth Congress of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus in 2010.
How did potato growing develop in Belarus
For the cultivation of potatoes to be profitable, this vegetable must be kept fresh and presentable until the new season. A decision was taken to give up on storage pits. Modern warehouses allow keeping the harvest intact. High-tech storage facilities are continuously improved. It is important to strictly observe the potato storage requirements. It does not matter whether it is a system with artificial intelligence or a root cellar.
“Long-term potato storage requires low temperatures of 2-4°C, 70-75% humidity and darkness. It turns green in the light. All enterprises in Belarus have excellent storage facilities. Work is underway on the new systems of the 5th paradigm. Our manufacturers are busy developing smart systems. We can’t change the nature of potatoes. People store the vegetable in cellars. This works well if the necessary conditions and good ventilation are in place. Conditions in industrial storage facilities are exactly the same,” noted Vadim Makhanko, Director General of the Research Center for Potato, Fruit and Vegetable Growing at the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus.
“National potato storage capacities are about 700,000 tonnes. This enables us to store the entire potato harvest. They are equipped with climate control, processing, sorting and packaging lines. This is important for keeping the product competitive. Today the technology is improving. This requires the use of certain lines and equipment,” said Tatiana Karbanovich, Deputy Head of the Directorate of Potato Growing, Horticulture, Agrochemistry and Plant Protection at the Agriculture and Food Ministry of Belarus.
What’s potato consumption per capita in Belarus
Last year, farms of all categories harvested 3.857 million tonnes of potatoes. That’s more than enough to feed the country. 300,000 tonnes were exported. On average, a Belarusian consumes 160 kilograms of potatoes per year. This season, the areas planted to potatoes were reduced by 2,000 hectares. The agriculture ministry says this decision is justified. We will not be left without bulba.
“Minsk Oblast and Brest Oblast have traditionally the country’s largest areas planted to potatoes. Their fields grow 50% of Belarus’ potato crop. But it cannot be said that these regions are the country’s only producers. There are large producers in every region,” Tatiana Karbanovich noted.
Potatoes grown for human consumption are used as seed potatoes for planting, as a raw material, as a stabilization fund crop, as a trade item. It is an important export item and it stores well in the off-season. The per capita production of potatoes rose from 360kg to 530kg over five years. Per capita consumption remained at 160-165kg.”
What potato dishes are cooked in Belarus
Why are potatoes called ‘the second bread’? Because they are rich in carbohydrates: a few potatoes are enough to satisfy hunger. Belarusian cuisine knows more than 300 potato dishes: draniki, dumplings, kolduny, casseroles and many more. The tradition of cooking grated potatoes is a historical and cultural asset of the country. Some time ago, journalists suggested that the president popularize the national cuisine by setting an example.
This suggestion was voiced during the press conference of Aleksandr Lukashenko to mass media from Russian regions in August 2003. One of the Russian journalists complained that Belarusian draniki were nowhere to be found in Moscow cafes and restaurants. He suggested that the Belarusian head of state set an example in promoting the Belarusian national cuisine.
“Well, we will treat you to draniki. However, those draniki that you will try and get to like here cannot be cooked in Moscow. Because it would be hard to take Belarusian chefs there or to teach Moscow chefs to make draniki. Moreover, not everyone in Belarus knows how to cook draniki the way I do. Let me tell you a story from my past. When I became president, the chef cooked draniki for me. I love my draniki to be dry, crispy, crunchy, non-oily. I had to teach my chef to make draniki the way I like. This requires a special treatment of the mixture, but there is nothing hard about it. The mixture includes a little flour, an egg, potatoes, however, the cooking style is the most important part. Thus, not everyone in Belarus knows how to cook good draniki.
What are the most popular potato varieties?
There are more than 170 potato varieties in the state register, of which about 50 were bred in Belarus. Growers categorize potatoes as early, mid and late season types. The most common varieties are Briz and Skarb. They are immune to late blight, have a high starch content and a pleasant taste. Such varieties as Pershatsvet, Mastak, and Yulia are gaining ground, too. New varieties are resistant to diseases and pests.
“The most common variety is Briz. This stable and well-balanced variety remains the most planted potato. The Skarb variety is not losing its ground, either. It is also a Belarusian variety. This is a table variety that stores better than any other variety. The Manifest variety is loved by many in our country and abroad,” Vadim Makhanko said.
Belarus produces all kinds of potato varieties. “These are table varieties and varieties for making chips, starch, and French fries. The most important thing is resistance to diseases and pests. Industrial potato growers use chemicals. Yet, we have to factor in the impact of agrochemicals on human health and ecosystems,” he added.
When buying potatoes, you need to know which one will work best for your dish. Domestic breeders offer many varieties; some are best for mashing, others for baking or boiling. There are varieties for salads, for frozen vegetable mixes, for making dry puree, for vacuum packages. French fries production looks like a promising business. The only workshop to make them operates in Tolochin.
“We have one French fries factory in Belarus. It can fully meet the domestic demand even if it runs one shift. If it operates in three shifts, it will make enough to meet our neighbors’ demand,” Vadim Makhanko said.
According to him, French fries are made from specific potato varieties and it is very difficult to create them. “In addition to varieties of other breeding institutions, we use domestic varieties. This holds a lot of promise The number of cafes and restaurants is growing,” he believes.
How is the president’s field used to develop new potato varieties?
The presidential land plot is used as an experimental ground for domestic breeders. New varieties are tested here every year. The president inspects the field whenever he has an opportunity. Aleksandr Lukashenko always harvests potatoes himself and evaluates the harvest.
“This year we have cropped about 300 tonnes of potatoes on this small land plot. We have donated them too. In a day or two the harvest will be transported to the monastery. We give potatoes to people, including seeds, because these are new varieties. I personally do it as a hobby. I enjoy looking for new varieties,” the president said during his working trip to Gomel Oblast in February 2020.
“Our president has a personal land plot where he tests novelties of Belarusian scientists. Long time ago the president made a decision to support agricultural science and stake hopes on domestic achievements. Today, amid the unstable situation, sanctions, closed borders, and complicated logistics, we can confidently say that the country’s agriculture is fully provided with seeds and plants. This is all thanks to the hard work of the Academy of Sciences, which is actively supported by the president,” Vadim Makhanko said.
What countries does Belarus sell potatoes to
Potatoes harvested from the presidential field are usually donated to nursing homes and orphanages. The journalists of the presidential press pool also had a chance to taste potatoes from the presidential field. During one of the visits to Russia Aleksandr Lukashenko gifted four sacks of potatoes to his counterpart Vladimir Putin. Looks like a good present ahead of the New Year celebrations? Belarusian potato is a brand that stands for high quality and good taste. Not long ago Governor of Russia’s Stavropol Territory Vladimir Vladimirov told the Russian president that his potatoes were better than Belarusian ones. Of course, this statement put a smile on Putin’s face, and also made Belarusian scientists smile.
“Belarusian potatoes have been known for their great culinary qualities since the times of the Soviet Union. There have always been the varieties of high taste standards. There was a variety called Temp in the Soviet Union. Then there was Lasunok. Today we have Nara. We can say that many are eager to achieve the taste qualities of Belarusian potatoes. This is our distinctive feature,” Vadim Makhanko said.
“The Belarusian potato brand is recognizable and popular. The geography of Belarusian potato supplies includes Russia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, North Macedonia, Serbia, Moldova, Montenegro and other countries,” Tatiana Karbanovich said.
Given the long-standing traditions, great successes of our scientists and the personal control of the Belarusian president, it may be strange to see Belarusian stores selling cheaper and better looking imported potatoes. Therefore, the president’s strict demand was to provide the domestic market first before expanding abroad. It seems unfair when a potato-growing nation has to eat potatoes from Egypt. Potatoes are potatoes everywhere. But home-grown potatoes are always tastier, and certainly they should not sell at higher prices.
“You are welcome to sell. But you need to make sure there are enough supplies until July-August when a new harvest of potatoes and cabbage arrives” the president warned civil servants at a government meeting in February 2023 to discuss the pricing policy. “Make decisions, together with the government, if necessary. I would like to repeat it once again: you raised this question and I made a decision. My instructions must be fulfilled. Our stores should be well-stocked with potatoes, cabbage, carrots and other vegetables until a new harvest. They should be clean and nicely-packed, just like imported ones. People will be happy to buy Belarusian products, yet these products need to look good in order to sell well. Belarusian products are of good quality, sell them. Potatoes from Africa and other countries at high prices in June, July and August should be ruled out. You need to ensure domestic products at low prices. The surplus can be exported. But first you need to feed your people.”
What are the health benefits of potatoes?
Potatoes contain a set of useful substances. This product has calcium, iron, phosphorus, vitamins B, C, K and P. It also contains a lot of fiber and protein, which are mainly found in its peel. That is why unpeeled boiled potatoes are healthier than peeled ones. Potatoes are useful for those who suffer from high blood pressure, have problems with the cardiovascular system and kidneys. Potatoes also produce an antibacterial effect on the body so they can come in handy for those who often catch colds. It is up to people however to decide how often to cook potato dishes.
“I eat potatoes once a week to avoid putting on weight and feel fit to play hockey. I eat them once a week on average, sometimes twice. I control my potato consumption,” the Belarusian president said in an interview to Kazakhstan’s TV channel Khabar in October 2019.
According to Belhydromet, weather conditions are quite favorable for a good potato harvest this year. We do not worship this vegetable, as the Peruvians did. Their land is regarded as the origin of potato cultivation. But we love this vegetable very much and perhaps cannot imagine our life without it. Like a true potato-growing nation we are also ready to share the harvest with our neighbors.
“Potatoes are our salvation. During the war potatoes helped our people survive, even without bread or milk. I am sometimes asked about a monument I would erect to commemorate the war period in Belarus. I always reply that I would build a monument to a sack of potatoes and a cow,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said in an interview to Kazakhstan’s TV channel Khabar.