Chris and Clifford McKernon’s great-grandfather John left Ireland in 1848, part of the wave of immigrants who fled during the Great Potato Famine. Despite that experience, when John McKernon settled his family in New York State, he planted what he knew—potatoes—a tradition that continues today at Goose Island Farm in Argyle.“To make a living from the ground, you have to always look for opportunities.” - Chris McKernon #CabotFarmers… Click To Tweet
Over the years, Chris explains, the family has pursued a variety of agricultural enterprises from eggs to kosher chickens to dairy cows. “They were always looking for ways to keep the farm going,” he says. “To make a living from the ground, you have to always look for opportunities.”
These days, in addition to milking about 65 Holsteins and a handful of Ayrshires, the McKernon brothers raise about 60 acres of potatoes, which sell briskly through local stores and supermarkets. Chris’s wife, Shelley, helps with the calves; their son Adam works on the potato business and their youngest, Tyler, helps out around his college studies. Chris and Clifford’s nephews, Sean and Daniel, also pitch in. “It’s kind of fun having so many family members involved in some way,” Chris says. “We’re all pulling together. Everyone wants to see the farm succeed. It’s rewarding and it gives you a good feeling that what you’re doing is right and good.”
Goose Island Farm grows a variety of potatoes including Reba, a round white, and Superior, an early-maturing variety that Chris says makes a great baked potato and is sought after by French fry stands at the local county fair. The family also grows a colorful mix of fingerling potatoes. Every fall the farm opens up for a couple days of pick-your-own when the McKernons run their 1950s-era digger down the rows to pull potatoes up for customers to gather from the fields themselves. “People love to watch the potatoes come out of the ground,” Chris notes. “The stony soil and shale ledge of the farm” he continues, “that’s what gives our potatoes their unique taste.”
In addition to the family members who work directly on the farm, many others live nearby. “My mom is still living right on the farm. We’re all circled right around her,” Chris says. “She’s 89 and she still lives alone and drives.” The key to her vitality? “She drinks a lot of milk and she likes her potatoes,” her son believes.
“I’m a simple guy. Most of the time I just have boiled potatoes,” says Chris McKernon, although sometimes, he cuts boiled potatoes in half and fries them in butter and oil with a bit of garlic or onion to eat them with eggs. Most of the time, though, he doesn’t do much cooking. “I’m more involved in the eating part,” he admits with a chuckle.
His wife, Shelley, makes “incredible” mashed potatoes, Chris says, and he recommends the variety Eva for mashing. Shelley divulges that her secret is lots of good Cabot butter and milk, or half and half for the holidays, along with a splash of bottled ranch dressing. In her Italian family, Shelley says, another holiday favorite is hand-rolled potato gnocchi, a classic potato and flour dumpling recipe handed down through the generations.
Here are two special scalloped potato recipes for your holiday table:
Another co-op member, Echo Farm in New Hampshire, has Irish roots and the Hodge family shared this rich potato casserole recipe. Makes 8 servings.
- 3 medium baking potatoes (about 2 lb.), peeled and thinly sliced
- 3 Tbsp. butter
- 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp. table salt
- 1/2 cup dark beer, such as stout or porter
- 11/2 cups milk
- 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups (8 oz.) shredded sharp cheddar, divided
1. Preheat oven to 375°. Lightly grease an 11- x 7-inch baking dish with cooking spray. Arrange potato slices, slightly overlapping, in prepared dish.
2. Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add thyme and onion; cook 4 minutes or until onion is tender and golden, stirring occasionally.
3. Stir in flour and salt. Cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute or until flour is golden; whisk in beer. Increase heat to medium-high. Bring mixture to a simmer; simmer, whisking constantly, 2 minutes. Whisk in milk, and cook, whisking constantly, 3 minutes or until slightly thickened.
4. Remove pan from heat. Stir in pepper and 1 1/2 cups Cheddar.
5. Pour cheese sauce evenly over potato slices. Cover and bake 45 minutes or until potato is tender. Top with remaining 1/2 cup cheese. Bake, uncovered, 5 more minutes or until Cheddar is melted and bubbling.
Try this quick dinner recipe for another great way to combine potatoes and cheddar:
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Melissa Pasanen is an award-winning Vermont-based journalist and cookbook author with a focus on food, farming and sustainability. She was the writer for The Cabot Creamery Cookbook (Oxmoor House, 2015).