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Vine Maple Studio: Digging Potatoes

I saw a truck load of potatoes in a hopper truck pass through Ferndale yesterday. Somebody must be digging potatoes. From my fleeting view, the potatoes looked good—not too large, uniform size, smooth, clean. U.S. No. 1s, washed and graded in the field and ready for the warehouse. That’s not the way it was done on Waschke Road.

Potatoes on Waschke Road

My grandpa, Gus, was called the Potato King of Whatcom County in Roth’s History of Whatcom County in the 1920s. I don’t know much about the way he raised potatoes in those days, but I have good memories of my dad, Ted, and Grandpa raising potatoes in the 50s and 60s while I was growing up. Like many things on the homestead, planting and digging potatoes was a community event.

Planting

Planting in the spring began with preparing the seed potatoes. Grandpa would choose the best-looking potatoes to set aside for seed for next year. When Grandpa quit selecting the seed, Dad switched to buying certified seed potatoes—White Rose, Netted Gems, and Kennebecs as I remember.

There is an art to cutting seed potatoes. Sprouts start from potato eyes. A whole potato usually has many more eyes than needed for planting, so cutting seed potatoes can double or triple the yield from a sack of seed. Grandpa liked three to five eyes per potato piece planted. Dad, Grandpa, and sometimes my mother, would cut potatoes for several days in late winter getting ready for planting. To speed the work, Grandpa built two “seed cutters,” hoppers with slanted floors he filled with whole seed potatoes. The potatoes exited through an adjustable door that controlled the rate they rolled out onto a tray, which had a fixed vertical knife to slice the potatoes into chunks with the right number of eyes. The chunks fell into a sack and were dusted with sulfur, ready for the potato planter. The knives were kept sharp and I remember cutting myself badly on one when I tried my hand at cutting.

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We had a two-row potato planter that required three men to operate. A tractor or team of horses pulled the planter. A set of disks opened trenches into which seed potato chunks dropped. My dad drove the tractor. Two men riding on seats behind the planter regulated the flow of potatoes into the trenches. Sometimes, when help from neighbors was short, my cousin Dave and I got to ride the planter and distribute the falling potatoes, a job that required more concentration and dexterity than you might expect. Another set of disks closed the trenches. It took a full day to plant five or ten acres of potatoes. We planted potatoes in early spring and more often than not, finished planting in the rain.

Dad cultivated the potato field several times during the growing season. The rows were spaced so he could drive the cultivator between the rows and eliminate weeds.

Digging

I looked forward to potato digging in the fall. Dad and Grandpa said that potatoes grew best near the woods, maybe because potatoes prefer acid soil, which meant bright fall leaves, especially the bigleaf maples, were always close in the background. The weather was cool enough for jackets and the air was moist with the fall scent of ripe oat and wheat fields and fruit orchards.

We had a single row potato digger that was pulled by the tractor. The digger was a blade that sliced a foot or so into the ground under the potatoes and vines. The potatoes, vines, and dirt went onto a wide chain belt that shook the dirt off and deposited the potatoes on top of the ground behind the digger. Our digger started out as a horse-drawn implement with a seat for driving the horses. When the potato vines were heavy, someone got to sit on the seat above the chain belt and use their feet to push the dry potato vines along and out the back of the digger. That job often went to a kid with legs long enough to push the vines, usually me or one of my cousins. That job was easy and fun.

The rest of the crew of relatives and neighbors “cleared vines” and “picked potatoes.” The vine clearers threw the vines to the side with pitch forks and the pickers followed, dragging burlap sacks between their legs, and tossing in the potatoes. The star pickers had heavy belts with hooks for the sacks so they could pick with both hands. When a sack was full, the picker would stand it up and grab a new sack from a pile of empties on the flatbed hay wagon.

While my Dad operated the digger, one of the neighbor’s tractors would pull a hay wagon through the field and the men would load on the sacks of freshly picked potatoes. When the wagon was filled, we’d haul it to the house and roll the potatoes down chutes through the basement windows where the potatoes would rest until they were graded and sold on “the route,” Dad and Grandpa’s weekly trip with the pickup truck to a string of small grocery stores and homes in Bellingham. In big crop years, the potatoes that would not fit in the house basement were stored in pits dug into the ground in protected spots in the woods. They lined the pits with cedar rails and straw, then covered the pits with dirt so the potatoes would not freeze.

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Grading and selling

Grandpa and Dad sold Washington Combination 75% U.S. No. 1s on the route. As I understood it, we only sold U.S. No. 1 potatoes, but by calling them Combination 75% No. 1, we did not have to pay to have the spuds inspected. We might have gotten more for 100% No. 1s, but not enough to make up for the inspection fee. In any case, Waschke potatoes had a good reputation; the grocers on the route paid Dad and Grandpa a good price no matter what the grade. They also sold potatoes and eggs to Pete Vike, a purchasing agent, who provisioned the galleys of freighters that docked in Bellingham Bay in the 1950s.

Most of the potatoes were stored in the basement of the house. Grandpa and Dad did the grading. A No. 1 potato is smooth and evenly shaped, not small, has no knobs, rough spots, or scabs, and, above all, is not hollow. Large potatoes often have an inner chamber lined with skin. I don’t know why this is a defect. I like baked potato skin and an extra skin on the inside sounds to me like an improvement, but, no matter, a hollow potato was a cull. Any potato large enough to risk being hollow, Dad and Grandpa fed to the animals.

The potato grader was a chute, about thirty inches wide and six feet long built by my grandpa that sat in the basement. The bottom was slats and it was inclined downward at about a 20-degree angle. 

Potatoes were dumped onto the high end of the grader and they rolled downwards, dirt falling off through the slats. Dad and Grandpa would inspect the potatoes as they rolled downwards and toss any culls that didn’t make the grade into a bushel basket destined to the cows or the pigs. Potatoes that made it all the way to the lower end of the grader went into a burlap sack. When the sack was about filled, it was shifted onto the scales and was filled to exactly one hundred pounds for sale on the route.

This all sounds like a lot of hard, boring, manual labor. I suppose it was, but it didn’t feel that way. The crew of relatives, friends, and neighbors were on a mission. Not a dollar changed hands for the work of in the potato fields. Those who helped got potatoes on their dinner tables, help with haying, cow dehorning, a share in the offal at butchering time– help whenever they needed it. That’s the way it worked on Waschke Road.

Copyright (c) Marvin Waschke. All rights reserved. 
Marvin Waschke
Marvin Waschke

Waschke is a Ferndale native who grew up in a farmhouse on the farm his great-grandfather’s family homesteaded. As a software architect, Waschke worked on IT management projects for close to 30 years. He has authored 3 books on computer technology including “Personal Cybersecurity” (available at the Ferndale Public Library) which addresses problems faced by individuals in a computing realm that is becoming increasing hostile to users. Waschke currently serves on the board of trustees of the Whatcom County Library System.

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