The Potato Patch and the Dirty Kids’ Club                 May, 2012

            Many of us have chosen to live a simpler, more self-reliant lifestyle, whether forced into it by the current state of the economy or because we simply did not wish to live in a constant state of excess. There is an obvious need for an affordable local food supply, particularly in rural or remote areas across the United States. Our community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California found a unique way to help us all work toward a more secure future, and we had a lot of fun in the process.

            Here is the story of the Potato Patch and the Dirty Kids’ Club, a story that could be put to work in any community.

 

            One day a farmer got caught with potatoes in the ground and a horrific storm on the way. He put the word out to his neighbors that he was in trouble. They dropped everything, as rural neighbors are so willing to do, and helped the farmer out by digging potatoes all day. The harvest was brought safely into storage. In return, the farmer fed everyone a wonderful meal and the neighbors took home all the potatotes they could carry, enough to last them through the winter. Everyone won. The farmer had always been willing to teach his neighbors everything he knew about farming, and so an idea popped into his head—why not gather folks at the planting season and teach them how to grow their own potatoes?

            The next year the spring season brought a day of perfect potato-planting weather. About two dozen interested persons met on a piece of land in the next county over that was ideal for growing potatoes. Word travels fast! We gathered around the farmer, who explained the benefits of the potato:

            Potatoes originated in South America and were a main staple of the ancient Peruvian diet. It wasn’t until the early 1500s that the potato became known to Europe as a result of Spanish explorers returning home with the strange edible.  Every culture to which the potato has been introduced has thrived because of the increased nutritional benefit of the spud. It averages 110 calories, none of which are from fat. It has 45% of daily vitamin C needs, 19% iron, a good amount of copper and potassium, many trace minerals, plus 3 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber, and 0 cholesterol. It has a high nutritional return per acre planted, which explains why the Irish peasants relied so heavily on the potato to feed themselves and their livestock. As a side note, we hopefully learned a couple of things from the Irish potato famine: 1) always choose a plot of ground that hasn’t grown potatoes, tomatoes, or any other potato family member for at least the previous three years, and 2) save your best unblemished, variably-sized and disease-free potatoes for next year’s seed.

            The farmer taught us the basics of creating a community food supply with that first potato patch. A dozen of us planted seed potatoes on a little more than half an acre that first year. The potatoes were watered regularly through the hot summer. They were “hilled” three times, an activity that consisted of the now-growing numbers of volunteers piling soil up the potato plant branches to increase tuber formation underground.

            The harvest day finally came. It was advertised in the local papers as a festival. Eighty-five people showed up and dug 8,000 pounds of potatoes! For their efforts, participants were fed two terrific meals, got to listen to a band that night, and all carried home sacks of potatoes. The leftover potatoes helped defray cultivation costs of the present patch, provided seed potatoes for the next year’s patch, and allowed the farmer extra potatoes to provide for his CSA (community supported agriculture) customers. Again, we all won!

            The following year, the potato patch was located on a beautifull parcel of gently-sloping cow pasture, with a start-up family farm willing to take on the responsibility of fencing, plowing and watering the future patch. Now the ball was rolling. The farmer was busy growing his own produce, but he had already taught enough people about growing potatoes that the new farmers could carry on teaching others.

            A school was located next to the new farm. The students, ages 5 to 16, were asked if they wanted to learn how to grow their own food. They were eager to get started. Last year we formed “The Dirty Kids’ Club,” and students learned about the needs of plants, what soil and compost are, how insects and microbes aid plants, and how to plant vegetables in the school’s own raised beds. When it came time to plant potatoes, those Dirty Kids out-planted all of us adults, and they helped show the new people who came to plant just how it was done.

            Once again, hilling was done three times—this year, however, we had three times the number of participants hilling. The students put together The Potato Book, which told all about the history, nutrition, and importance of the potato, and even included potato recipes and students’ original illustrations. The book was sold at the potato harvest festival, and the proceeds were sufficient to provide The Dirty Kids with seeds for their raised beds this year, plus some of the start-up costs of their new project—an insectary garden for native pollinators.

            We were very fortunate to have a local phiilanthropic foundation provide a grant that made it easier for children to particpate in the potato harvest; gloves, tables for sorting potatoes, shade structures, healthy snacks, water containers, and more were purchased through the foundation’s grant.

            One might wonder why, with potatoes being “dirt cheap” at the store, a community would pick that vegetable to grow in quantity? Aside from the potato’s great food value and winter storage ability, take a minute to research the fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides added to the soil and sprayed on the growing plant every week, before, during, and even after the poor potato is harvested in the commercial setting. It is mind boggling!

            The local potato patch is never sprayed, and working the patch just one year at each location allows next year’s land to be more usable for a future endeavor. For example, the first potato patch is now a seed garden for growing open-pollinated seeds we can harvest and store in a community seed bank for future years. Last year’s potato patch at the family farm is now a truck garden that produces crops for sale to local food-buying groups.

            Potatoes were made available all winter to harvesters, The Dirty Kids’ Club families, and anyone who asked for potatoes. Next year’s patch will have the healthiest potatoes saved to plant in the new location as seed, and some citizens plan to purchase a potato digger to make harvest easier.

            We hope it continues, year after year, providing communities more usable farmland, more food,  more community action, and more and more joy spread across the foothills of California. It is the result of a desire to keep us and our children connected with the basics of life that keeps the potato patch thriving. Why not start your Potato Patch today?

 

2016 Update

            The Potato Patch has continued as an annual tradition without interruption, and each year’s patch reveals its own set of struggles and triumphs. Focus received a matching grant for a potato planter/harvester in 2013 from the Irving J. Symons Foundation for Tuolumne County, a supporting organization of the Sonora Area Foundation. The tool has made the Potato Patch lightweight work, and in some cases harvest would have been impossible without it (remember the year of the knee-high Bermuda grass?!) Hilling is still a manual event, but many hands make light work.

            Inspired by the Focus project, Sonora High School’s Wildcat Ranch has joined in the fun by doing their own Potato Patch each year, and this year is no exception. The use of the Focus planter and harvester makes the chore more like an excuse for a get together! In the process our community becomes rich with the knowledge of growing and sharing our own food. Students and parents alike are given an opportunity to connect with the land and the source of their food. Hooray for local food!

This article was written by Val Dambacher, for the May/June 2012 issue of Countryside magazine.

 

           

           

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Seed exchange groups
Groups meet and network ideas
Displays
Many different types of seeds on display
Plowing the potato field
Preparing the fields
Harvest time
Beautiful bounty!
Seed exchange lecture
Listening and learning
Tractor Maintenance
Old tractors never die
Sorting potatoes
Helping to sort through the harvest