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31 years of a remarkable competition

A potato competition. Never heard about it? True, potato competitions are not top of the pops it is But read on, this is a story of lasting friendship around potatoes. The story began over three decades ago and it continues to this day.

It was a regular Sunday in 1991, recalls John McQuillan. Four friends, Paul Simpson, Snow Hamilton, Jim Bradley and John, were having a drink with their partners, just like they always did. But that day, John spoke up with an idea. “ Why don’t we have a potato competition?” he said. None of them were keen potato growers but everyone was a bit interested. They started to fine-tune things, working out the rules, even writing letters to each other about potato diseases. Finally, everything looked perfect. The potato competition began. “In 31 years we have never had to cancel it,”says John,.“We thought the rain this year might kill it. But no, we have continued,”John adds proudly, knowing he is not a keen waterer of plants and the heavy rains helped him this year.

Time can change rules. One rule was, have a partner and the other was, let’s not change the four competitiors. But of the four, Jim moved to Australia in 1988 and six years later, Sno passed away. But friendship changes rules and the competition did not stop. Jim’s place was taken by Allan Miles, and Callum McGillivray joined in 2015. Another criterion of eligibility was supposed to be knowing little about gardening . It turns out that Allan and Callum are great gardeners, so that was overlooked or forgotten because they fitted in well.

The seeds are bought every year from Aeroview Garden Centre. According to the rules, there are always 12 seeds selected, so each grower gets three seeds. “We set a day for planting. We get together, have a few drinks and all of us witness the seeds being planted in each person’s garden,” says John. “On the day of the digging of the potatoes, which is three months (13 weeks) later, we get together again, have a few drinks and something to eat, and then go to each other’s houses again to all witness the digging.” Though everyone plants three seeds, only two plants can be nominated for the competition. They count and weigh the potatoes together, and points are awarded for the most potatoes, heaviest weight overall and heaviest individual spud. “The third plant is dug up but goes to another house and is only allowed to be called upon if there is a tie in the scores.” John adds.

From the beginning, everyone has used the same seed - Cliff Kidney potato seed, But the difference is in the soil. The four all have their own secret weapons, when it comes to their soil. “Believe me, I will try anything secret if it comes to winning” says John with a wry smile. “Sno once got some special compost from Taupo. He put too much in and ended up with a mass of tiny potatoes. Ideally the potato being a small size is better, but unfortunately, the rules for winning are just the opposite,” smiles John who, this year ,was the outright winner for the first time in ten years,.

The “Achiever’s Trophy” which is crafted to resemble an Alley’s truck and is for the biggest loser, went to Paul.

As his name appeared on the Achiever’s Trophy all too often over the past few years, John is excited about taking the Winner’s kauri potato trophy, made by Callum. His friends said to him,“Why go to the paper since you have already broadcast your victory to everyone?” But John has more to share. “The rule is that the person who wins is the one who buys the seed potato for the next year. Now that I am the winner, I am going to change the Cliff Kidney potato seed we have used for 31 years to Purple Passion seed.”

Another seed from the potato competition. Neil Reynolds, who accompanied John to the Informer, is a good friend and a partner in the Home Brew Club with Jphn. Recently, Neil started his own potato-growing competition with his son and son in law. “I have been watching these four guys for a long time; how deep the seed potatoes are planted and how the soil looks.,”says Neil. “Now I’m hoping to become an expert myself. The first year I only got 12 potatoes, but what’s more important is that my son and son-in-law, both of whom knew little about gardening and showed little interest, have come to love gardening.” Neil smiles a lot. He is a happy man and in the company of friends.

The potato growing foursome: Callum McGillivray, Paul Simpson, Allan Miles and John McQuillan, 2022 winner, the first time in 10 years.

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