Saturday, October 9, 2010

Farm Journal: Qué Desastre!


At first it took me a while to see what I was seeing.

Lots of sand and tire tracks over what had once been a garden.

A month or two ago half of the sunflowers had been removed to make way for the new septic system and I thought that was all that would be lost. 

Today, three-quarters of the squash field and a third of the raspberry bushes were gone.  Unfortunately, they was still more fruit left to ripen. 

Then, when I looked at the potato field, I couldn't believe what had happened.  Green stalks that were turning yellow were now withering brown vines.  A few unearthed potatoes sat on top of what had once been a hilled potato plant.   Tire tracks now covered the field.  I dropped the two white buckets I brought for harvest out of disbelief.  What had happened?!? 

Last summer I had spent entire days in the hot, 90-degree sun hilling the potato plants so they would be protected—and so I could find them easier during harvest.  I learned that from last year and wasn’t going to make that mistake again.  But now the hills were flattened.

June 20 -- shoots starting to come up
Instead, I found the plants by spotting the brown vine, which was bent over but still stuck in the ground.  I pulled it out and dug out a batch of potatoes.  Luckily, most were still good.  I tried another plant and most were still good.  But as I continued digging, I began to see a pattern of the real damage.  Green potatoes lay on top of the ground and had to be thrown out.  That was to be expected because rain had washed away enough of the soil to expose them to the air and sun.  Truck damage, however, had left several wounded spuds.  Rotted potatoes that had been cut or squished open were obviously no good.  The squashed potatoes or those with cracks in them had to go, too. 

It turned out that I was tossing between one-quarter and one-third of each plant on the compost pile.  A plant yields about five pounds of potatoes or more.

The earth was also quite packed down from the weight of the trucks and it was hard in some cases to dig the potatoes out of the ground.  I now saw the effects heavy equipment has on the soil and why some people advocate “no till” farming.  This soil had largely been composted, grown and cultivated by hand over 25 years.
Early August -- flowering potato plants

I suppose it hurt to see this destruction of the squash and potato fields because so much work had been put into them.  In June, Ron and I had planted 100 pounds of potatoes and were expecting between 500 to 800 pounds at harvest.  He then taught me how to grow a squash field by a cross-hatch method of measurement:  you plant a seed at the intersections.  The ducks ate half the field by chomping off the tops of the young plants.  On the other hand, we got so many squashes and zucchini with just half a field, I didn't regret the loss.

It took two times of rapid weed growth to learn that I needed to cultivate the plants at least once a week so I usually spent Saturday or Sunday weeding.  I hilled the plants twice and on the second hilling created a mound as high as I could get.  It sure took a lot of muscle and sweat to move earth by hand! 

Farmers who visited the farm told Ron how good the fields looked and they remarked on the obvious care I had taken.  That sort of encouragement gave me some pride in my produce and in my work and I suddenly understood why farmers’ eyes gleam brightly at the markets when they sell their stuff. 

I would pick the crops as they matured.  Some of the zucchini and summer squash went to the goats because they like it and because we had so much.

When the potato plants matured, I harvested them in small sections so we could eat just-dug potatoes.  Then I systematically cleared the field of the dead vines by collecting them in various compost piles around the field.

First shoots in June and first harvest in late August
I began to identify with the potatoes and even gave myself a new name, the Potato Lady.  I admired my dirty fingernails and used them as cause for a conversation about gardening.  I began talking with Matt and Kurt Wiley about potatoes, conferred with Dennis Wilcox at Blue Dog Greens about storing them over winter, and used the Internet to learn more about the plant.

Until today, the biggest problem I had was what to do with the expected surplus.  I began looking for ways of distributing the potatoes because I just couldn’t bring myself to waste them.  Besides, I wanted to share these good-tasting beauties with others.

Carrie Young agreed to sell some at the Texas Farmers Market and reported they were "a hit" with customers.  Family, neighbors and friends gladly took them.  Ron brought some potatoes--and squash--to the workers at the new farm.  Chef Channon and her boys gladly took some potatoes, squash and raspberries after they finished cleaning the barn.  Kalamazoo College had a harvest fest and I gave away a few potatoes to the students there. 

There really were more potatoes than we could eat, so the lost potatoes really won’t make that much of a difference in us giving us our share.  It’s just that it was hard to see the garden ruined.  We had even dodged potato beetles, blight, a prolonged hot sun, an overabundance of rain, and animals taking their portion of the crop. 

What we couldn't fight, however, was the new septic system that had to be installed.  Well, now that’s done so I’ll just harvest and store the rest of the plants.  It's just one more lesson in why we give thanks for our food.  You never know what can happen to your crop!

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