A Question of Faith

Or is it a question of hope and charity instead?  For all we know and have experienced, it is also a question of luck.  Or if you are more spiritual, it is all about karma.

Potatoes.  That’s what we are talking about.  In the joint aching, windblown cold of January, we turn over the fall cover crop, set rows and then slog out into the soft soil and bury potatoes.  Red ones, little blue ones, golden ones and even purple spuds; they all go underground.  And then we hope it doesn’t rain.  After last summer’s record breaking drought, wishing for it not to rain just doesn’t feel right. On a big farm with large scale mechanized methods, growing potatoes is just growing another crop.  For us, we have limited space and time for successive plantings and so we have just one opportunity.  If it rains before the potatoes sprout, it means the seed pieces will rot in the cold wet fields, unable to be salvaged.

Three weeks after planting, with the days already measurably longer, we start looking for sprouts, at which time freezes become the next worry.  That and wire worms, grubs and nematodes, rats and gophers, and weevil larva that all seem to wake up hungry at the same time as the soil starts to warm.

When the sprouts are up and tall enough for the first hilling, we arm ourselves with sharp hoes and leather gloves.  We go down the rows hacking at weeds and dragging earth and mulch up as high as possible.   Yes, we are trying to rebury the potatoes.  The tubers are formed along the stems of the sprouts, so the more stems under earth means potentially more potatoes. So we bury, then bury again and if we are lucky, we get to rebury yet again.

Of course if we aren’t lucky and conditions are not right – as in not enough rain or too much rain, a cold grey spring or a too hot scorching spring – the plants become stressed. Long before the farmer can see the plants’ distress, the bugs are aware and so attack.  Like tomatoes, potatoes are in the nightshade family and so every bug above ground that attacks tomatoes will also go after the potatoes. Flea beetles and aphids are bad. Stinkbugs are disgusting.

But it is the voracious tomato hornworm that is frightening. They get so big and aggressive that even our youngest son Nick, a tall strapping warrior, screamed like a girl when he said they tried to eat him.  Forget about the copperheads hunting the field mice as they try to harvest the early potatoes.  It is the hornworms – big enough to not be afraid of birds or man – that are the stuff of farmer nightmares.

In the face of this onslaught, what does the organic farmer have in his arsenal to mount a defense?  There are your leather gloves for protection as you flick, pluck, push and squish the bugs by hand.  Then there is the liquefied putrid fish and seaweed.  That irritates them.  And there is always home-brewed hot pepper tea and garlic juice.  That helps repel them. Finally there is expensive cedar oil. It creates a zone of aroma that disrupts the pheromone receptors of different types of insects.  Think of a spring break beach party where the hordes of virile young men can’t see the girls in their string bikinis.  No action for the bugs and no action for the farmer.  You get caught in that spray and no matter how much you scrub the smell lingers.

The season progresses and temperatures rise.  The plants flower and produce little hard balls of seed.  Having achieved that, the plant matures and then the big existential crop question consumes the consciousness of the farmer.  It is today?

We are talking harvesting of course.  Without a visible tuber and knowing that every time you dig a test plant, you are killing potential potatoes, just how often do you indulge this need to know?  Are they big enough?  Are they too big?  Are enough of them of a good enough size?  Is it going to rain and change a straightforward process into a wet heavy, backbreaking nightmare? Can the children and friends come out to help in the process? Speed up the day of the harvest or push it back to accommodate important factors?

Faith, hope, charity and karma: they have all played a role in the bringing in of a good harvest.  And until the row buster opens and uncovers the buried treasure, and the harvesters stagger about like drunken sailors gathering in and hauling baskets of spuds and the crop is safely stored away from the elements, failure is always an ever-present possibility.  Success can only be measured as the first of the new crop, quickly steamed, salted and maybe sprinkled with some nearby fresh dill or parsley is consumed by the harvesters.  On our hard scrabble farm even the potatoes can carry the sweet taste of a job well done.

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