Potatoes: old wisdom and new

This week’s blog will look at one of America’s favorite vegetables, the potato. The potato is one of the world’s most important crops in the world and is the second-most-consumed food item behind dairy products in the United States. The average American eats close to 140 pounds of potatoes per year--that’s a lot of French Fries!
The potato was first cultivated in Peru 4,000 years ago and has spread all over the world since European contact with the Americas. It has become an integral part of many diets, and has played a starring role in world history: potato crop failure was the cause for the “Irish Potato Famine” in Ireland in 1845-46, which caused over 2 million people to emigrate from the country in the following years. As a nutritious treat, potatoes are a great and easy vegetable to grow.

On the farm this summer an experiment is taking place involving this farm favorite; I will be looking to see if beans and potatoes are the next big couple. From varying sources I’ve been told a bean plant can act as a companion towards a potato plant and protect it from potato beetles, a devastating pest. But I’ve yet to hear this rumor confirmed from a reliable source. Curious, I began to formulate a plan to see if this was the perfect pair, or a dream too good to be true. I planted three rows of potatoes surrounded on both sides by bush beans, while a ways over, three rows of potatoes sat as the test subject, free from any “protection” from the bush beans, forced to face what nature threw at them alone.

The work began with digging a 6 inch deep trench to nestle the potato spuds into their new home. The work was tough, digging deeper and deeper, having to find a new home for all the soil displaced, the afternoon sun burning the back of my neck. Row after row the trenches were dug, and the potatoes buried, each one a foot apart. Digging the trenches I felt as if I was carving the Grand Canyon, lost in the horizons of the soil I was exposing, thistle roots everywhere running throughout acting as my Ponderosa Pine jutting from the cliff face. I became lost in my work and hours later I had six rows dug, each planted with 33 plants. I then moved on to new territory, creating an above-ground box to grow some more spuds in. As they get taller the plants will be mounded high with soil, an old trick to get them producing more tubers, the part we love to eat. When it was all done, I had planted a rainbow of varieties, ranging from Yukon Gold to Peruvian Purple.

As I finished my work, I thought back to this poem from Seamus Heaney:


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

- from Death of a Naturalist (1966)

David Rittenhouse, Farm Research Intern

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