Thursday, February 27, 2014

Isaac's Potatoes

In the earliest years on his homestead and timber claim, Isaac B. Werner did not have a horse, mules, or oxen with which to break sod.  He had to trade his labor in payment for using neighbors' animals and plows to break sod for planting, and that allowed him only limited acreage for row crops.  Instead, he focused on planting trees.  (See "Isaac Plants Cottonwood Trees," 12-2-2011 in blog archives.)

Gradually he was able to open more land for planting, and eventually he acquired a horse of his own.  (See "Isaac's Dolly Varden," 12-28-2012 in blog archives.)  His two main crops were corn and potatoes, and he gained a reputation for raising particularly fine potatoes.

Harvesting potatoes
 When our nephew came for a visit, we arranged the opportunity for him to see the farm operation of a family that raises potatoes.  Naturally, I could not help but contrast the commercial operation of today's farming with the methods used by Isaac.

Potatoes arrive from the fields
When Isaac determined that his potatoes were ready for harvesting, he had two options--he could plow them out of the ground using his horse Dolly and a plow, followed by hand picking the potatoes turned up by the plow, or he could manually hook the potatoes from the ground without plowing.  It was a very labor-intensive job either way, and Isaac was often frustrated by the inability to find neighbors available to help at the time they were needed.  Contrast Isaac's method with the image of the machinery at work in the field today.

As Isaac by himself or with the help of neighbors dug the potatoes, they were generally transported to his house by wheel barrow.  The number of potatoes that could be dug in one day were a matter of a few bushels, in contrast to the far larger numbers dug by machinery, and Isaac had no need for machinery to convey the potatoes for cleaning and sorting, although transporting them by wheelbarrow was a back-breaking job.

Sorting the potatoes
Isaac stored his potatoes in the basement of his house.  He built bins to hold them until he had time to sort them by quality and size.  Occasionally he had help sorting them, but it was generally a job he did himself.

In order to transport his potatoes for sale in town, Isaac had to build rectangular, bushel boxes from wood.  He did this in the winter, when he was not busy outdoors, and the boxes were not sold with the potatoes.  Building the boxes was time-consuming and the wood used in their construction was expensive, so he recycled their use.  

Huge bags of potatoes inside semi-trucks
He transported the boxes of potatoes in his wagon, pulled by horses.  It was a heavy load, if the wagon was full, so in the early years when Dolly was his only horse, he borrowed a horse or mule from a neighbor to help pull the load to market.  Today, potatoes are loaded by machinery into huge bags and are transported by trucks.

Isaac experimented with many varieties, getting his seed potatoes from growers in other places to test in the Kansas sandy loam of his fields.  The names were often almost poetic--Rosy Moon, Rocky Mountain Rose, Early Maine, Monmouth Prolific, Strawberry Red, Chicago Market.

In 1885 he wrote in his journal:  "...had my barrel of Irish Seed Potatoes 2 3/4 bushels unloaded, the following kinds and quanties..." (after which he listed several varieties), concluding with these words:  "11 kinds total".  Like Isaac, modern growers continue to plant test fields to determine the best varieties to grow.

1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

Sandy loam is great soil for spuds. We have heavy clay in our garden and cannot grow decent root crops at all. Potatoes are a family affair here for both planting and digging. Many hands make light work as the saying goes. Nice photos of the commercial operation.