Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Fending Off Famine

Consider how many votes are cast over gun control, abortion, or gay rights, and then ask yourself how often you've seen politicians really squirm when grilled about raw milk. The politics of food is an fascinating, potentially incendiary topic, albeit one which frequently escapes our notice. I'm not just referring to the provenance of swine flu or ethanol subsidies, however; I was thinking more specifically about potatoes.

The Irish, as most folks know, were rather notorious for their reliance on those starchy tubers. Until the potato famine emptied the island and forever gave potatoes a bad name, potatoes and milk formed the foundation of the Irish diet. Surprisingly, for all its blandness, this white-on-white meal plan was relatively nutritionally sound. Dinnertime was boring, but sustaining. Wheat performed poorly in Irish soil and required expensive, skilled tillage to grow, whereas an acre and a half of potatoes could feed a family all the way through winter and into the next year. The English elite, however, did not view the Irish affinity for potatoes as a practical utilization of small landholdings and a cold, wet climate. Instead, they nibbled daintily at tea cakes while laughing at the Irish "lazy beds" of potatoes.

The method is indeed simple (though producing a good crop can be anything but): you dig a trench, bury potatoes in two rows offset from the center, and then "hill" them at least twice as the shoots appear. Piling surplus dirt to form a mound, or "hilling," gives the roots more space in which to grow potatoes, as well as providing a convenient way to choke out weeds. Of course, you still have to monitor for disease (blight!) or insect pests (potato beatles!). Believe me, you can't just walk away and spend the rest of the season at the pub drinking Guiness.

In the past three days, we've planted 1100 lbs of potatoes, which isn't really all that much, when you consider that we hope to harvest about 11,000 lbs. We'll need those spuds to tide our winter CSA into January and then to feed hungry apprentices before the greens come in. (We apprentices have a tendency to eat like famished locusts.) Assisting us in our great potato campaign have been students from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in nearby North Adams. Leaving the farm each day sweaty and tired, no one complained about feeling lazy or underworked.

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