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Potatoes


Copyright Chuck Bealke, 1998

When I escaped seven years of McDonnell-Douglas in St. Louis to work for Hesston Corporation in the mid 70s, I was told to report to Logan, Utah,  for training (as a marketing writer) on a potato harvester that Hesston had acquired by purchasing a company there.  After the relative high tech of fighter planes, I figured any iron that harvested potatoes would be extremely simple.  Well, it was sure not as complex as a fighter, but the flow of potatoes through that machine was a long way from simple.   The harvester was a rolling collection of conveyers running in many directions.  It picked the potatoes from the ground, cleaned the dirt from them and put them into sacks or a truck running alongside.  It handled a mountain of potatoes quickly and efficiently and took a big tractor to pull it.  This was impersonal, highly mechanized, high-volume agriculture.

This was not the potato biz I had known on our farm.  Back in Missouri, we had grown Cobblers, and the flavor of these dug fresh from a garden was truly grand.  For those who know them not, potatoes are planted early.  Seems like in St. Louis County, we tried to get them in by St. Patrick's day.  Those who raised them to sell (say 3/4 acre or more) would use a planter  (once or still horse-drawn)  full of cut up potatoes (seed) with sprouting eyes in them.  Some of these grown kids of the depression told me that in hard times they used peelings instead of larger pieces for seed.   Whichever is planted grows into attractive green plants with white flowers that look mighty fine as they mature in rows.

In our area, some who raised vegetables to sell on the roadside raised what they called straw potatoes because these were nicer and stored better than the others.  Straw potatoes were raised using the same seed, but were planted differently.  First the ground was plowed, disked and leveled with a harrow.  The seed potato pieces were dropped on the prepared ground in a straight row.  The seed was then covered with straw that had been set outside in the elements the previous fall so that it was wet, starting to rot, and more importantly, had the wheat and weed seeds sprouted and withered out of it.  When the potatoes were mature and ready to harvest, the straw was cleared off the top and the relatively clean potatoes were gathered. 

Unlike the warehouses full sold in stores, freshly dug Cobblers came in all sizes and had a great flavor.  It seemed that whenever you gathered potatoes, your jeans looked like you had been rolled down the rows - this from kneeling in soft ground.   If the ground was a little too damp it could get kind of messy. But it was what I remember fondly as clean dirt as opposed to the grime of the cities and machines.   The farmers who sold potatoes in a stand would have a room or two of them in the cellar. When the Winter was howling about outside, they could be found going through them in poor light culling those starting to go bad so they could continue selling potatoes for quite a while.   Somehow this seemed a lot more bearable if you had a loyal dog to keep you company.

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