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Potatoes, Meaningful Work and Peasant Food

September 27, 2011

One would think growing your own food would be thought of as a noble cause, especially with the trend in the last 10 years or so of people moving “back to the land” again.  But lately, I have been hearing the words, homesteader and peasant in a much more derogatory way than usual.   Even locavore type farmers are turning on the type of people who are trying to grow a bigger share of their own food.   I’m so old-fashioned I’m “in” again.  My gardens and my fashion statement are about the same as they were in the 70’s.  Sigh.

I think some of the problem lies in the notion that we need to earn money to buy something.  I myself would rather grow or make what I need instead of selling my food for cash and then purchasing items from somewhere else.  Even local somewhere else.  My dollar is worth more if it doesn’t go through the system.

Another problem too, is society’s attitude about farmers.  The anonymous second class citizen who toils day in and day out to send food to the anonymous store, so the anonymous buyer can pop in and purchase perfect looking food on a whim, that time slot sandwiched between all the other important things to do in a day.  No worries there on the part of the consumer, no imperfect food, no bug holes, no spoiled product, no dirt, no busted wings, just more uniform products in a monotonous, standardized world.

But we can’t blame the consumer for all of this, we are them.   It’s not unusual to see farmers and market gardeners selling their best and eating second-rate food.  Personally I think the farmer and market gardener should make sure they can feed themselves with their products before they ever think of selling.  When you have a surplus, you sell, if your freezer isn’t full you shouldn’t be shorting yourself or eating the dregs.  How can we as farmers expect to feed others or have much credibility if we can’t supply our own families with ample food?  Many people start to grow their own food because they were tired of eating second rate or contaminated food in the first place.  Wanting a change means being the change or walking the talk.  Raise the best food you can, and sell or barter the extra if you have it.

All that ranting aside, we harvested our potatoes last week, in an enjoyable three days between other chores my daughter and I harvested 672 pound of potatoes.  It wasn’t back-breaking, nor drudgery.  We laughed, got dirty filthy, listened for fall birds, worked hard, and pulled in quite a haul for winter food for ourselves.  In other words, meaningful work with my teenager.  No eye rolling, no fussing, just two people working at a common goal.

I know, potatoes are supposed to be labor intensive, and they can be, but if you work smart from planting to harvesting they are still one of the best high calorie crops to grow.  Couple that with dryland gardening and you have yourself a survivalist, peak oil, peak water crop if I ever saw one.  Potatoes have fallen from favor in some circles because of their glycemic index, but you can slow that down by adding…fat.  Two bad words in one sentence.  And depending on what theory you believe, most of us will be eating that pesky peasant food one of these days, starchy carb load or not.  So I figure I will just keep plugging away growing my staples, and leave the exotics to someone else.

How easy?  Easy.  First off, I don’t start out digging in the garden, I plant my tubers about 2 inches deep, in rows 4 feet apart.  Planting 50 pounds by hand takes one hour including digging the two inch hole.  That is just one scant shovel load.  Not counted in that hour, the preliminary garden preparation.

Then as the potatoes grow, I hill them with a hoe.  I need to weed and keep the soil loose between the rows anyway, I may as well do two jobs instead of only one.  Repeat until potatoes bloom.   Three hillings/weeding/dust mulching @ two hours each = nine hours.

Finally, we harvest the potatoes.  Since I haven’t buried them deep at planting time, the potato hills are loose, friable soil and easy to swipe off with a spading fork.  You can use any tool you want, but I like the short-handled spading fork best in case I do need to dig for a potato.  Seven potato rows, two people, one hour a day for three days = six hours.

Sorting, packing and storage, two hours.

Total potato time from planting to table – eighteen hours.  Not bad for slow food.

Romanze (5#) – 82 pounds.   16:1
Purple Viking (45#) – 590 pounds.  13:1

In the stacking vein, I am trying to do two jobs in one while harvesting potatoes.  I have already established a cover crop between the rows, and I don’t want to disturb that by tilling after the harvest, so I will smooth out the hills by hand after the potatoes are harvested, leaving the soil ready for additional cover cropping.  I’ve included video and photos.

Kneeling on a feed bag, I pull the vines, and remove any potatoes still attached and place on the a cleared spot.  I usually work from right to left and put the harvested potatoes on the previous hill that has just been cleared.

Quality control.

If I use a swiping motion with the spading fork to clear the soil instead of digging the soil away, I do no damage to the potatoes.

After two or three swipes I am down to ground level, a few potatoes are exposed and I switch to hand work.

The potatoes are easy to feel and pick because I didn’t plant them deep.  Potatoes form above the seed piece along the stems, the deeper you plant the original seed piece the harder it is to harvest in the end.  I am a lazy gardener, the easier I can make a job anywhere in the process I do it.

Toss on adjacent hill.  Note flying potato on the right.

Smooth hill and repeat the entire process.

Beautiful.  There is just something about harvesting potatoes…

I feared worse vole damage, but it seemed to be isolated to just the edge rows and not really all that severe.

All in all, a pretty good dryland potato harvest.

47 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2011 7:24 am

    Wow, that’s a lot of potatoes! Do you sell some of them, or give them away, or will your family actually make it through 672 lbs? (Different question: how do you store them?)

  2. Fid permalink
    September 27, 2011 7:39 am

    Love it, love it, love it! Few understand any of this yet you put it so well. So, I’ll just print this and stick it on the frige or somewhere for others to read.

    Your fellow (dirty, non-tax paying, tired but well-fed) peasant,

    Fid 😉

  3. September 27, 2011 8:08 am

    I can’t imagine a world without spuds! Are those Desiree that you’ve planted this year? I’ll bet their colour makes them practical for locating in the soil. I’ve just tried a friend’s Pink Fir Apple potatoes last night and have been converted. Just divine!

    • September 27, 2011 6:53 pm

      Tanya, me either! The pretty pink ones are Romanze and nice red skin with yellow flesh, and very productive and tasty. Last year I gave my box of them away by mistake, so I had to start over this year. I’m hiding those boxes because I want to see if they store as good as the Purple Vikings.

  4. September 27, 2011 8:13 am

    Peasant food, right. Look what eatin’ high on the hog has gotten us into! I’ll have to ramble on this on my own blog, but I wonder how we get others to see the beauty and gratification of human- or animal-powered work. With all this talk of unemployment, I don’t hear anyone saying “I think I’ll go be a farmer”. Seems like, if we don’t value farmers, we don’t value soil or our food, and be extension, we don’t value ourselves!

  5. Rick permalink
    September 27, 2011 8:48 am

    Great post. And I agree with what you said.

  6. September 27, 2011 9:28 am

    I love this post….we tried potatoes in cages for the first time this year. We had a few, but I think we will try your technique in the coming year. We are nubbies and trying hard to be peasants…not really, it comes naturally, and we are proud of it. Take care and keep the posts coming!

    • September 27, 2011 7:03 pm

      Cheryl, thanks, potatoes are really not all that fussy, and soil around here is much easier to come by than mulch or ingenuous ways to grow something that really likes to just grow in the ground. 🙂 Yeah, it’s not all that hard to be a peasant. 😉

  7. September 27, 2011 9:46 am

    Matron how do you “package” them? I think I remember you mentioning you store them between hay bales in the barn in boxes? Love reading about your techniques! You are inspirational as always. xo, Annette

  8. September 27, 2011 10:14 am

    Purple Vikings are my very favorite potato! So creamy and buttery inside. I made the mistake of planting La Ratt and found out they are not named because they look like rats but because they multiply like them. Luckily the Vikings stand out and are winning the race for space (with a little help).
    I’m right there with you on the minimisation of work. Never lift a rock twice when you can lift it once.

    • September 27, 2011 7:08 pm

      Phoebe, I’m with you, I love the Purple Vikings for any type of cooking. Plus they keep so well for so long. I have never been a fan of small potatoes, which includes the popular fingerlings. Just doesn’t make sense to me.

  9. September 27, 2011 10:28 am

    you make perfect sense. especially about the surplus stuff (making sure your own are fed first) and the quality time spent with your kid.

  10. A.A. permalink
    September 27, 2011 10:36 am

    Such a good post, thank you! We mulched ours this year with rabbit litter and hay leftovers. It wen’t alright and we got a decent return and the spot in better order for some other plant next year.

    I was wondering, have you had trouble with diseases like potato blight? Thinking of potatoes as a backup food, the blight’s a big deal. Almost everybody sprays these days. Are there blight-tolerant varieties that are significantly safer? What about Jerusalem artichokes?

    • September 27, 2011 7:37 pm

      AA, sounds like a plan. Blight is a worry, not as much here as other places in the states, but still early or late it can get you. We aren’t as humid here, so that helps, and have a dry growing season, so it could be avoided or if push came to shove I would grow potatoes in my hoophouse instead of tomatoes, which really are a condiment type food, whereas the potatoes are more of a staple and don’t require any processing to store for long periods.

      I have heard Nicola is somewhat blight resistant but haven’t tried it, and we love Jerusalem artichokes, but not as much as spuds. They keep fine in the ground here without digging.

  11. September 27, 2011 11:07 am

    They look great. Thanks for the tips, too!

  12. John permalink
    September 27, 2011 11:23 am

    I’m quite jealous. Must be the “dry land” thing.

    I plant potatoes anyway and got about 250 pounds last year, about a 5:1 ratio. Hilling them up helps even here, but your harvest method made me laugh out loud. I go along with the digging fork, stomp it in next to the potato plant, turn over a hunk of clay about a cubic foot in size, then get down on my knees and knock it apart the best I can by pounding on it with the side of the fork. If the weather has been dry, and I hit it hard enough, it will shatter and I can pick potatoes out of the “gravel” if it has rained recently it will come apart into a bunch of fist sized hunks of sticky clay. Some of these, when washed thoroughly, will have a potato inside.

    This year, it didn’t go as well. It started raining a week after I planted them and didn’t stop for about a month and a half. The hilled up part was above water which helped, but getting in there to hill up more or to weed them was simply impossible. Weeds can make a lot of progress in two months. By the time it dried out I just ran the plow through it and picked up what I could. Yield, about 1:2. Oh well, in this business, like baseball, there’s always next year.

  13. September 27, 2011 12:50 pm

    What did you use for cover crop, and was it in place before planting potatoes, or did you plant it after the potatoes?

    And I have to differ with you about selling produce.

    The point of selling or trading produce, is to deliver the most value, and that will be as blemish free and “pretty” as you can deliver.

    It isn’t that the farmer or market gardener takes the dregs — just the “just as good, and fit for everyday” food. The perfect and flawless and peak of perfection examples are kept, a few, for *treats* or sold for indulgence by the wealthy, and occasionally by those that come by a windfall or special occasion. To me, this is just making the best use of a good harvest. I might put by a select bit of the very best and seeds of the most productive plants for seed for next year, plus a very few for ‘treats’.

    As the relative cost of food climbs past the “every meal is an indulgent special occasion” level in more people’s economic calculations, there will be more need for two potato bins at the market, one for ‘first choice’, the next for ‘everyday’.

    • September 27, 2011 7:45 pm

      Brad, no that’s my fall/winter cover that I just planted a few weeks ago. I don’t irrigate so I keep the rows relatively weed free during the growing season, and then interplant a fall cover crop.

      I didn’t mean all farmers or market gardeners take the dregs and I have used a cracked egg or two myself or a chicken with a broken wing, but many go hungry because they get cash and go and buy food elsewhere that they could have just grown for themselves. It’s kind of like people who pay people to garden or do yard or farm work for them and then go the health club for a work out. Why not just stay put, do the work, grow the food and get the exercise and keep the money/time/labor/good fresh food as close to home as possible?

  14. September 27, 2011 3:54 pm

    A woman after my own heart. I put mine just a bit deeper at the start as my rows are a bit closer and I run out of dirt for hilling otherwise. I think my yield this year was about 30# from 5# of seed in dry-gardened rows that were planted quite freakin’ late (Memorial Day). It’s 2/3 Russian Banana fingerlings and 1/3 California Russets. I skipped the reds and yukon golds this year as the garden went in so late due to the wet/nasty spring and I was struggling to catch up.

    That said, this year’s harvest was light. Last year we got 75# from 10# of seed and that was perfect. I’m sure I’ll be buying potatoes at the farmer’s market come February. Next year I think I’ll go back to planting two full rows instead of just one.

    Oh, my Cornish X chicks are here! They’re doing well considering they’ve survived 85F sticky heat, a 4 hour power outage (hooked up the generator for them), a big ol’ windstorm, and now some cool rainy weather in an uninsulated shed in their first week – we’ve only lost 3 of 81. I’m thrilled as it looks like they’ll be about $9/bird vs the $15/bird we’ve run on the Slow Cornish the past 2 years. Thanks for the coaching on them!

    • September 27, 2011 7:48 pm

      Laura, I have often wondered if I could get by with closer in row spacing, but I am afraid to try it, unless I hilled with implement I don’t think I could scare up enough dirt for hilling…

      Yeah on the chicks! It’s supposed to warm up soon, I hope it stays a little while longer I want my squash to get some more sun!

  15. September 27, 2011 6:30 pm

    So Nita- is your soil clayey up there like it is here in the valley? I grew potatoes for the first time this year and so far I only got a few. I grew them in bags and it was a so-so experience. But I want to do better because I’ve read that potatoes do provide more calories per acre than any other crop. That and my husband is a fiendish fan of the humble spud.

    When do you plant? do you plan for different harvests or do you harvest everything at once? And where do you keep all of them? I think you said the barn before, but what do you do when you live at 150 feet above sea level and don’t have a basement?

    • September 27, 2011 7:57 pm

      Paula, some clay down deep, but we’ve got silt loam but it can get sticky if it’s too wet.

      I planted June 6th this year, sometimes I can plant a little earlier and last year it was June 14. I plant all at once, and usually harvest at the same time too, hopefully when the soil is still dry. Much easier that way, the soil is lighter, and the potatoes are dry. Have you read, This Organic Life, by Joan Dye Gussow? She details her cold room for storage, plus many other tips and trials of her personal life and gardening all along the way. My friend who who has a barn, stores her potatoes in her garage on the north side, and keeps them in plastic buckets with the lids partially open, and another friend stores them in coolers and both methods work for them. Just some ideas. Coolness, darkness, and high humidity and you’ve got it made!

  16. September 27, 2011 8:52 pm

    Nice step by step description for planting, growing and harvesting the potatoes. I have one small bed that doesn’t do very well. I think the soil isn’t deep enough and they don’t get enough water. Each year my compost makes more soil depth so maybe in a few years that plot will do better. – Margy

    • September 27, 2011 9:03 pm

      Margy, I’m thinking you’re on the right track. I had really good hills of potatoes and some not so good depending on the soil. Gardening is always good for food for thought too 🙂

  17. September 28, 2011 5:03 am

    Sounds like you have a very good potato year, 672 lbs of potatoes at the cost of 18 hours of labor is pretty darn impressive. Real work for real food. I just recieved a book I ordered, “Dry Land Farming by Thomas Shaw, that I am looking forward to reading this winter. Can you recommend any other literature on this subject?

    • September 28, 2011 5:41 am

      Mike, we did, I had a nagging feeling that I should plant the whole space, even if I didn’t need all the vegetables it may produce, extra may come in handy. I didn’t log in dog petting, ground beetle re-homing, or playing and joking with my kid, or photography time, all and all we had some great late summer days.

      I have to say I have an unfair advantage when it comes to dry land gardening, because I was exposed to gardeners who didn’t water or didn’t water much. So I have followed that design myself, since those people really had to feed themselves from their gardens, it was not a hobby. I try to plan my garden as an extensive system rather than intensive system so I don’t have to water – wide row spacing and thinning – with the option that if I need to water, I can. That way I am not locked into a Jeavons style intensive water everyday or frequently type irrigation plan. My plants have to seek moisture instead of having it brought to them, and subsequently they have deeper roots and access to more minerals, and they store better long term. My gardens look pretty good, and I watered some brassicas once, and the some of the cucurbits once throughout the summer.

      Solomon says it best for the layman although he really turns the mulching crowd off and therefore many gardeners. I have no easy access to mulching materials, but I have do have dirt, it’s free and it’s right there. So I am thankful he was brave enough to try and write about what has worked so well. I always recommend his Water-wise Vegetables since I think peak water is more of a concern than peak oil in the immediate future. Bringing in copious amounts of mulch materials is a pretty fuel intensive proposition. Here is the online version on Solomon’s site with a good comment by Solomon at the beginning.

      • September 28, 2011 7:54 am

        “Bringing in copious amounts of mulch materials is a pretty fuel intensive proposition.”

        this is where those who garden but not on acreage have a huge challenge. Having animals who need bedding anyway that can be used as mulch, salvaging repurposed paper products from the energy intensive recycling stream (like boxes and newspapers), collecting fall leaves from around town and growing your own green manure that can be cut and left on the surface are all great sources of mulch.

        Of course if you don’t have ducks and you live west of the Cascades you will have slugs from hell. It’s always a balance.

        • September 29, 2011 5:09 am

          Annette, I agree heartily. Carbon is the( or one of) weak link on our farm and I’m working on a post about that dilemma.

      • September 28, 2011 11:44 am

        I love your site—
        I planted potatoes by accident a few years ago (when I first started gardening, I put everything in my compost bin, including potato skins). Needless to say, the first year when I had potato plants/vines coming up, I didn’t know what they were. After they grew all season, and I never saw fruit/veggies on them, I decided to pull them up. And lo and behold, there were magic potatoes under them. I was excited, and my family laughed at my ignorance! Well, every year, I now get potatoes coming up in the same area.
        So this year, I actually bought a bunch of seed potatoes, and I am going to plant a proper plot of potatoes. I am excited to see how they do. I live in Southern California, so I am wondering if I should plant in November or wait until spring. Last year, most of my garlic rotted since we got SOOOOO much rain, but that is definitely not the norm-
        thanks for all of the advice.

  18. September 28, 2011 8:49 am

    Yes! Yes! Yes! People get tired of hearing it from me, but I feel that those of us who can, should feed ourselves from what is right there, tax free. If you sell it it you potentially sell away topsoil tilth and nutrition, less interest, labor costs, insurance, taxes, and middleperson, and what’s that? Industrial resource depletion. Subsistence has been under attack for a reason, these last 200 years or so, and I fear that reason will come back to haunt my children.

  19. September 30, 2011 2:51 am

    An OT post:

    I went to read Just Another Day on the Prairie’s blog and discovered it had been marked private. I’ve been reading it every day for a long while after finding it in your list. Is there some way you know of to be allowed to read it? Apparently you must be invited. I’ve never commented so she probably doesn’t know I exist. I sure hope so, as I’ve enjoyed reading about her life, so very different than mine.

    Thanks for any help with this.

    • September 30, 2011 4:29 am

      Pam, when a blog goes private, you need to request access, whether or not you will get it is up to the blog writer.

  20. September 30, 2011 3:01 pm

    You never disappoint, Nita, you’re always sensible and honest. Potatoes are one of our important crops too, and I love harvesting them, it’s like finding buried treasure. I’d be interested in reading how you store your spuds and if you leave them “stored” in the ground sometimes, like we do.

  21. Mads Stub Jorgensen permalink
    October 1, 2011 4:54 am

    Which kind are your spuds?

  22. October 1, 2011 1:21 pm

    I’ve planted 3 different kinds of potatoes in bags, (Nicola, Desiree and King Edward) and they’ve been growing beautifully. I’ve been gradually filling the bags up to the brim with compost as the plants grow so now I’ll leave them to do their thing.

    I love when potatoes from previous crops that I’ve planted in the garden grow again in the next season! It’s a little surprise. I don’t know about you, but obviously I never seem to harvest them all…

  23. April Makalea permalink
    October 4, 2011 4:53 am

    I agree wholeheartedly on selling our time for money and the vegetables and meat we need for ourselves. It is not about how much we can sell, it is about much we can avoid spending. We will sell our extras but I am always clear that we will not purhase from the store what we grow ourselves simply because we sold our stuff to someone else. A laugh when I see a roadside business nearby selling everything they can produce. By the size of their garden there is no way they are producing anything for themsleves. Seems like a shame to later trade that money for lesser quality food.

  24. October 10, 2011 1:54 pm

    Dear Matronofhusbandry,

    I’m not sure why watching you harvest potatoes was so exciting! Um, perhaps it’s because it’s the FIRST TIME I’ve seen it done. My dream is to retire on a farm, complete with horses and rolling hills in the background. I’ll keep checking your blog until my dream comes true.

    • October 10, 2011 9:16 pm

      @ tvknight10,

      To get started you might look for a farm or horse situation near you, and volunteer your help in exchange for learning the operations and concepts of farming. Using someone else’s tools to learn can be a big savings — having someone to show you how to select the appropriate tool for a task, then to show you how to use it to get the task done with a reasonable amount of effort, for the task, and in a fashion to care for the tool as well, that saves a lot of wasted effort and tool repairs.

      Finding work or volunteering can really pay off when it comes to working with livestock.

      And you might find a few remedies for end-of-the-day tensions and aches.


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