Thoughts Thunk while
Digging Potatoes by Hand
by Tom Roberts, Fall 2004
Digging potatoes is not always just digging potatoes.
We don't grow a lot of potatoes. Twelve hundred feet of
carolas for late summer and fall potatoes and six hundred feet of red gold
for early summer new potatoes. Both are creamy yellow fleshed varieties that
help set ours apart from industrial commodity potatoes that sell for
20¢ a pound. Were getting $1.50 a pound and sell about a little over a
bushel a week at farmers' markets. When we run out shoppers ask for them and
are sad when we don't have them.
Since we are only growing a small quantity and getting a
premium price for them, it's worth the few hours a week I spend on my knees
with a digging fork turning over the potato beds in search of the little
Doing two things at once
When I walk out to the potato patch, I have learned to
always bring two buckets, one for the potatoes and another for stones. I
figure that since I'm turning over the soil anyway, I may as well toss the
stones into one bucket and the potatoes into the other.
I have never looked at removing stones from my gardens as
a necessary tiresome chore. Of course it's good to remove them so your hoe
blade won't bounce around so much, and your tiller tines won't wear out quite
so fast, and kneeling in your garden won't be a potentially painful
experience. Removing stones does result in better and easier gardening. But
these reasons are all narrowly focused on getting the stones out of the
garden; they all say that once the stones are out of the garden the job is
done, and the stones are a waste by-product of this operation.
A waste by-product on an organic farm? Perish the
thought! If you can't see everything as a resource, you aren't really trying.
Stones from my garden are never a waste product.
Once I have five pails full, I load them onto the tractor
bucket and haul them down to the woods road leading to my sugarhouse, where
they firm up the muddy spots and ruts. With just a few year's rock picking
from all of our gardens, I have made the six hundred foot sugarhouse trail
easily passable by tractor and woods trailer. No longer is the journey as
stressful to the tractor and tractor operator as it was previously.
Stones larger than my fist I set aside to add to our rock
pile, which we will use for building our next slip-form stone walls.
Moving down the potato row I am nevertheless pleased when
the potato bucket fills faster than the rock bucket. Yet I am getting two
crops for practically the same work as one harvest.
Why isn't there a Freeze Weeder?
Ever have purslane in your onions? Or galinsoga in your
carrots? Or foxtail in your peas? In each of these all-too-common
combos, the weed is frost-sensitive but the crop is frost-hardy.
Reflecting on this led me to ask the question: Why not take advantage of
this by using a "freeze weeder"?
To my knowledge, there is currently no such thing as a
freeze weeder, but I don't know why there isn't. Think of it as a modified
flame weeder. Flame weeders don't burn the weeds, they just flash heat them
to burst the cells and kill the weed. Flame weeders are used to eliminate
weeds without disturbing the soil, since disturbing the soil encourages new
weeds to germinate. Plant your crop, let the weeds germinate, flame them
before the crop emerges. Flame weeders use propane tanks, either tractor
mounted or on a backpack, to supply propane to a nozzle at the end of a
wand, where it is ignited.
To make a freeze weeder, why not replace the propane tank
with a tank of liquid nitrogen, forget the igniting part, and go down your
row of frost-hardy crop frosting the row with super-cold nitrogen gas.
Like a flame weeder doesn't burn the weeds, the freeze weeder wouldn't be
freezing the weeds as much as frosting them. And if you've ever looked with
joy at the dead galinsoga, foxtail, purslane or other frost-sensitive weeds
on the morning after a frost, you can imagine how effective such a gadget
could be. Why isn't there a freeze weeder?
Your community's Balance of Payments
The term balance of payments is generally reserved for
international trading. For example, we buy autos from Japan, and they get
our money. We sell them soybeans, and we get their money. Our balance of
payments with Japan is determined by totalling the value of everything we
sell them and deducting everything they sell us. When the balance of
payments is negative, it means we are buying more from them overall than
they are buying from us. A negative balance means that we are transfering
wealth from us to them. So the term balance of payments is an indicator of
how wealth is being transfered. A negative balance of payments means an
outward transference of wealth, an overall loss of our wealth.
It occured to me the same is true of our households,
communities and state. Each of our communities, however you choose to define
community, has a balance of payments with the rest of the world, with
neighboring households, communities, states and nations. Buying carrots from
California? You are transferring wealth to a California farm. Using AOL as
your internet service provider? You are transfereing some of your wealth to
the AOL/Time/Warner conglomerate. Shopping at a local farmers' market? You
are transferring some of your wealth to local farmers. Anyone who spends
money is in charge of transfering wealth; spending money is tranferring
Of course it gets a bit more complicated. Shopping at Wal
Mart means you are supporting Chinese factory workers, but some of your
wealth also gets send back to headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, some
goes to truck drivers, stevadores, commercial marriners, and some to the
folks who work at the local Wal Mart store. But almost all of it leaves your
But if you bought those sneakers from the New Balance
outlet store in Skowhegan, you have the choice of Maine-made sneakers,
which means you are transfering wealth to a Maine shoe factory (and its
higher paid workers). Most of your wealth stays in Maine.
There are thousands of such examples, one for every time
you spend a buck, and when you stop to consider where you are sending your
wealth, you come to see you are part of the balance of payments of your
community. The neat thing is that the smaller the community you consider,
the more obvious it is how you are affecting it, and the greater the affect
you personally can have on it.
Get a weeks groceries at the farmers market and you have
made a noticeable impact on the income of several farmers. You have
transfered some of your wealth to people who not only live less than an hour
from you, but who are dedicated to producing your food and practicing in
right livelihood. You have enhanced the balance of payments in the community
that is your foodshed.
Digging potatoes is not always just digging potatoes.