With most crops, there are no real surprises at harvest. As the crop matures it’s easy to tell what kind of returns you’ll get at harvest time.
But not so with root crops. The crop is hidden underground. Sure, it’s possible to dig up a few and have a peek. But until you start digging them all up, you really can’t be sure whether the year has been good, fair or bad.
Yesterday I harvested potatoes and I’m sorry to say that the harvest was disappointing. Not a total failure. There will plenty of potatoes for us this winter. But not the kind of return I’d expected.
Once again I’m reminded of how important diversification is on a farm like ours. Every year we know there are going to be disappointments, but we have no way of knowing what they’re going to be. Likewise, every year something is going to surprise us with returns beyond our expectations. But we don’t know which plants are going to do that either.
So we grow over 100 things and most will be winners. We don’t put all our proverbial eggs in one basket.
If we were potato farmers, we might be worrying about how we’ll pay our bills. But we’re not. And with bumper crops of cantaloupes, watermelons and eggplant, we’ll have plenty of food for our customers today, even if we won’t have many potatoes.
In 1845 Irish farmers began digging up their potato crops and were horrified to discover that a blight had ruined most of them. Close to half of the Irish population had become dependent upon potatoes as almost their sole source of food. And they only grew one variety. So when that crop failed, people starved. Eventually over a million people starved to death in Ireland and a quarter of the country’s remaining population fled to America.
That story demonstrates tragically the risks of monocultures and dependency upon single varieties of foods. And, amazingly, in our food system today we are increasingly converting to monocultures and growing ever fewer varieties of vegetables. We are putting ourselves at great risk, unnecessarily.
We’re thankful to have potatoes this year. But even if our crop had been a total loss, unlike those Irish farmers 170 years ago, we wouldn’t starve. We’d just eat something else instead.
There are important lessons to be learned in both our story, and the story of the Irish Potato Famine.