Harvesting Potatoes

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.

Yukon Golds

Yukon Golds

French fingerlings

French fingerlings

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.

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26 comments on “Harvesting Potatoes

  1. bobraxton says:

    I met a man who had been high school (at the time through grade eleven) for my father’s generation (born 1916) R. H. Hutchison (Alamance County, Sylvan – Quaker – Snow Camp). Mr. Hutchison apparently had lived (and worked) in the mountains of North Carolina. When I myself was in high school at Eli Whitney (1958, 1960) he jokingly explained to “us” that in the mountains when the gardeners planted potatoes, they just placed a horizontal board (lumber) at the very bottom of the slope and then when they harvested potatoes they would simply remove that board and the irish potatoes would simply roll down the hill – presumably into their potato sack(s). He was a friend of genealogists Dixon and Harvey Newlin, grandfather to a high school classmate of mine.

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  2. Sue says:

    Good (and timely!) post, Bill.
    I started digging yesterday and wow–what a shock. Red Pontiacs have always been the only variety I grow that doesn’t have problems,, but after 7 years—I’ve got problems! They were horribly misshapen and had the oddest “texture”—like balsa wood. Strange. I have NO clue what the problem was. They looked like crabs—they actually had strange , curled in legs–almost like the petals of a flower unfurling. WHAT???
    Anywho, I’m glad I have 3 more beds of different variety. My reliable old standby failed!
    Have a good weekend

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    • Bill says:

      Sorry your potatoes gave you an unwelcome surprise. We harvested our Red Pontiacs a few weeks ago. They only did OK. Many were small. It seems it just wasn’t a good year for potatoes here on our place. Hoping your others do well.

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  3. shoreacres says:

    I suppose this is obvious, but it’s an idle thought that just occurred to me: mono-eating isn’t any better than mono-culture. We’ve heard it since childhood — so much so that we often don’t hear the message at all: “eat a variety of foods.” It’s one reason so many so-called “diets” fail or malnourish. Cutting out all fats, all sugar, all carbs, just isn’t good. Moderation, balance, and variety: a good way of farming and a good way of eating.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. BeeHappee says:

    In Lithuania, potatoes were the main crop for the year – harvesting was scheduled some time in advance and required a few days of large number of people working together. I remember being so exhausted after long days of digging, and walking the acres of fields among the burlap sacks filled with potatoes. Some years were light, mostly due to too much rain and rot. You are right, those years were devastating, because most people relied feeding themselves on potatoes through the winter. Prices in the markets would go up, so we could not afford to supplement with purchased potatoes either. There was no monoculture established by the industry and subsidies, but there sure seemed to be a leaning towards monoculture established by traditions, taste preferences and ease of growing certain things – sometimes perhaps even the lack of seed varieties. I am truly amazed at the seed varieties they have now. My CSA offers some 15 varieties of tomatoes and at least 3-4 varieties of radishes, that I never even heard of.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      One of the great things that CSAs (and the local food movement generally) are doing is keeping alive those traditional varieties that are disfavored in the industrial model.

      Potatoes grow easily, even in poor soil, and produce more food calories per acre than any other crop. Plus they are easy to store. They’ve probably saved a lot of societies from starvation. But by becoming totally reliant on them (and only on one variety at that, as the Irish did) places a society at great risk–as you know. As you probably also know, potatoes are a new world crop, introduced to Europe a few hundred years ago. Much of Europe subsequently became heavily dependent upon them. They’re so identified with Ireland that here in the South (and possibly elsewhere in the U.S.) they’re called “Irish potatoes.”

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  5. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, potato harvesting has problems on a global level. Even my British YouTube friends have had a very anaemic potato harvest. I don’t know about mine just yet as I haven’t started harvesting them yet. I planted a potato bed in three layers of potatoes. The last layer is still blooming so it might be a while before I start digging out the potatoes which is OK because they will keep just fine in the ground. My neighbor that has a garden at Terra Nova Gardens hasn’t started digging up his potatoes either so I’m not sure what the harvest will look like in my area. Hopefully, it will be enough to last for a time.

    Mono culture growing has taken over in my state. Well, I should say bi-culture growing has taken over. The crops are almost entirely corn or soybeans. Some times a view of a field of alfalfa will be seen. It’s all GMO seed planted and laced with chemicals. When I was young and in junior high (middle school), I wanted to be a farmer. Never did I think or even hear about having to be certified in the use chemicals to be a farmer. Anhydrous ammonia was knifed into the rows of corn to add nitrogen for growth stimulant and mechanical cultivation got rid of the weeds. We did use broad leaf weed spray but for many years I remember walking the rows of corn and beans with a corn knife (machete looking knife) or a short handled hoe. That’s back when farms were only a couple hundred acres at most. Crop rotation between corn, small grain, soybeans, and alfalfa was the norm. Animals were abundant on the farms back then. Every farm had hogs, cows, horses, and some times sheep. Very few farms today have any animals other than a dog to bark when some one comes for a visit. The entire Midwest farm culture has morphed into some thing very different than 50 years ago.

    To journal or not to journal, that is the question. I have over the years started many journals but without much success. They were so extremely boring that even I didn’t find them worth writing let alone reading. It just became a list of accomplishments without emotion for the day. It was more like record keeping than a journal. Today, I have a blog but it is rarely visited and information is a bit sparse on the blog. Maybe twice a month I write an entry. My real expression of life is in the comments that I leave on blogs. I write the comments on a private blog and copy it over to the comment section of the blog I’m reading. I have a complete record of my commenting for several years. It seems I write better material if I’m given a subject rather than just to try to write about my own thoughts for the day.

    Have a great potato digging day.

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    • Bill says:

      With all the rain you’ve had, I’d be worried that the potatoes might have rotted. Here I think it was the opposite problem. With no rain our clay-based soil is as hard as bricks. I could barely break the ground with my potato plow.

      You’ve witnessed a remarkable change in agriculture. I discuss it in the first chapter of my book (coming out in a couple of weeks). Farms are much bigger now, and they’re typically not diversified. A generation or so ago, farms had chickens, a few pigs, a few milk cows, gardens and a cash crop. Now most just have the cash crop. The farmers get their food from Walmart like everyone else. In 1900, 95% of American farms had chickens. Today, less than 1% do. 80% of American farms had milk cows. Today only 8% do, and nearly half of those are on farms with more than 1500 cows and over $1 million in annual sales. The traditional diversified farm is largely a thing of the past.

      It’s neat that you’re keeping a journal of you blog comments. Great idea. I very much appreciate your consistently fine and interesting comments here.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. BeeHappee says:

    Bill, this is timely, as I just watched documentary “Seeds of Time” – it is a story of Cary Fowler, a scientist who has worked on seed diversity for over 30 years now. His main point in the movie is that we are rapidly loosing biodiversity due to climate change.
    http://www.seedsoftimemovie.com/
    Maybe you can start hosting movie screenings with your sustainable friends get together group! 🙂

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    • Bill says:

      We did screen a movie at one of our gatherings–an interesting documentary called “The Power of Community–How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.” It tells the story of how Cuba was forced to convert to all organic agriculture, to resume traditional farming practices and to adopt urban agriculture, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and their loss of access to oil, fertilizer, pesticides, farm equipment, etc. It’s a fascinating and inspiring story.

      Seeds of Time sounds interesting. Maybe we’ll cue it up for a future meeting!

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  7. avwalters says:

    I think I’ve mentioned that the garden was a bust this year. Still the beans did well and potatoes, which I’ve never been able to grow before because of clay soils, here, the potatoes do well. I’m learning and expect that next year’s garden, with the sands fully amended, will be more successful. Now you have me wanting to jump the gun and did them up to see how well. Recently we had terrible and damaging storms. My friend’s garden was pretty much shredded by hail–almost a total loss. So, hidden in your blog today is yet a third theme of sustainability. We need to can, dehydrate and preserve some of our crops–not just for the winter, but in the event of a total crop failure in the following year. Diversification, both in plants grown and in the varieties of our plantings, is key to success in changing circumstances. Being able to store foods, canned, dried, preserved or root-cellared, is important, too.

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    • Bill says:

      Yes, amen. Even with diversified crops, we have to be prepared for emergencies and it is important to keep a supply of food on hand, preferably that doesn’t rely on electricity. Most of our society is now utterly dependent upon a grocery store to supply their food. A few years ago I did a post titled “What if the Trucks Stop Coming.” It’s an important question I think. https://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/what-if-the-trucks-stop-coming/

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      • avwalters says:

        In the last few decades, I’ve always had a garden that supplied the bulk of my fresh produce. So, my failed garden this year is a bit of a slap in the face. Combined with the storm that destroyed my friend’s garden, it got us thinking about exactly that–what if the trucks stopped coming. We are lucky, we have some stores of preserves and abundant opportunities on the land. (Venison and bunnies for protein) and tons of wild foraging opportunities. Because I have food limitations–celiac and allergies, I’ve gravitated towards the safer, non-processed foods (which works with my gardening jones.) Still, if the trucks really stopped coming, the moral and ethical issues extend far beyond what our individual plots have to offer.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. allisonmohr says:

    Bananas are in danger now. Fungus is affecting the Cavendish strain, which is what most people eat. This will be the second strain lost to monoculture practices.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-06-04/banana-killer-on-the-march-fuels-risk-of-fruit-s-next-extinction

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    • Bill says:

      Wow. I was unaware of that, but I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising. As stupid as the decision to rely on a single at-risk variety may be, that is the norm in an industry that demands uniformity, not diversity.

      An interesting tidbit I discovered when researching flavoring. The banana flavor that we know from banana-flavored candy was developed before the demise of the Gros Michel, so it imitates the flavor of that much tastier but now defunct variety.

      Our daughter did a study abroad program in Belize and because of what she told us about the environmental destruction done by the banana industry there, we quit eating them. Nasty business.

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    • smcasson says:

      Yes, we have no bananas!

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  9. smcasson says:

    I didn’t read all the comments, so idk if you touched on this. Is there correlation between the plant size and the tuber harvest?

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  10. Laurie Graves says:

    So true! My great-grandparents were potato farmers in northern Maine, and they lost their farm during the Great Depression. There were several factors involved—crop loss wasn’t one of them—but surely diversification would have helped. On a trip to northern Maine to visit the old farm site, I noticed that the current owners were growing broccoli rather than potatoes.

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    • Bill says:

      So many farms were lost during that time. The hardships people endured then are far beyond anything most of us have ever experienced. I’ve heard many elderly people talking about those days and it still blows my mind.

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      • Laurie Graves says:

        Yes, a terrible loss for my great-grandparents, who never really recovered from it. They went from having a farm with hundreds of acres to living in a tiny apartment in a mill town. Sad, but as you indicated, not uncommon during the Great Depression.

        Liked by 1 person

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