You can speculate all you want: Some say milk, some might posit toilet paper, others might suggest meat, still some people might feel that adult beverages might disappear from the store shelves first.
What was the most important store item for people in literature, during difficult economic times? In John Steinbeck’s book ‘Grapes Of Wrath’, while her family was camped at a Hooverville, Tom’s mother went to the store with a little cash raised from selling gasoline from the truck. She purchased one potato that the family had to share.
In George Orwell’s book ‘Down And Out In Paris And London’, young Eric Blair, when faced with a difficult decision of what to buy with a few francs that he had left, purchased a potato to cook in water over a candle in his room in Paris.
During hard times, the list of depended upon vegetables was usually the same: Root crops that store well. Here on our homestead, the fresh vegetables that are consumed raw, like lettuce, kale, okra, peppers, etc. are all well and good, and quite seasonally delicious. But it is the root vegetables that take us through the cold Maine winter until next spring when our fresh raw vegetables begin coming in again. These are most essential to the success of this homesteading experiment. And this week I want to write a little about the potato.
The thing about potatoes is that they are pretty cheap to purchase. But during difficult economic times, all food, when you can find it, will become scarce. And scarce translates into inflation, that is higher prices. For us the answer lies in growing all of our staple foods. Fending for ourselves. Not being dependent upon the retail system so heavily. The economy will get really bad, in fact I can present a pretty good argument that this has already begun and will only get worse. Much worse.
Another reason for growing your own food, in this case potatoes, is taste. Simply put, we like to eat. But we like to eat good-tasting food. We accidentally found a variety of potato called Blue Gold, or Peter Wilcox. We had ordered the old tried and true Kennebecs, but they were sold out. The sales person suggested Peter Wilcox, we said, ‘okay’, and have stuck with this variety ever since. It is a yellow fleshed blue skinned mid-seasoned potato that is the very best tasting variety I have ever sampled. You cannot buy this vegetable in the grocery store, whether the economy is good or not. You’d have to go to a farmer’s market and even then I have only seen one farm selling it. Our other variety of potato for this year is Elba, which is a white flesh type, but a really excellent storage potato. I sampled a few back in July and they were quite good. Last year we also grew fingerling potatoes, which was fun, but this year just the two types.
We preorder our seed potato during winter for an early spring arrival. If you forget to do this you can probably find seed potato at some of the agricultural stores, but they will be the standard fare, nothing really special tasting in my opinion. They will feed you during times of economic collapse, but that is about it. You want to eat well, don’t you?
After our seed potato arrives, we cut them in half and lay them out on a tarp in the coolest room in the house to scab over. Then we plant the seed potato halves in the garden about ten to twelve inches apart. We have a hiller/furrower attachment for our rototiller, which gives us a nice furrow for planting. This one attachment saves us so much work. Into the furrow we put compost and then the seed potato cut side down, and then cover over with dirt using a rake. We generally plant our potatoes during mid-May. We usually steal a few baby new potatoes for a special treat in mid-July, because by then we have quite a yearning for them. But just a few, because we want the rest to get large enough for storage. By the end of August the foliage dies. We like to leave our potatoes in the ground for another couple of weeks after that, so that the skins can harden over, helping them to store better.
About the only thing we have had go wrong mid-season was an infestation of Colorado Potato Beetle. There are many chemicals on the market to combat this, and we use none of them. I just use an old broom and bat them off the foliage. It does not take too long, and does a fairly good job. I do this daily as needed.
We harvest our potatoes with, oddly enough, a potato fork. Try as I might, I always manage to pierce a few, or sometimes more than a few. These I set aside for immediate use. Lay your newly dug potatoes out to dry, but out of direct sunlight. It doesn’t take long for this, maybe half an hour. Then proudly put them in your root cellar. You’ve just performed an act of self-reliance that hardly anyone else does any more. We layer ours in metal trash cans, the kind with holes in the sides, with layers of hay or straw, like a lasagna. This year we had a good yield and have two trash cans full of potatoes already, with the Elba variety yet to be harvested going into a third. Last year we learned how to store potatoes the hard way, and had some in a cool room in the house to use first, and the rest in the root cellar. The ones in the cool room went bad in a month, and the tubers in the root cellar lasted until we ran out, in mid-April.
So there you have it. Plant potatoes next year, and some other root vegetables while you are at it. That way you will be less affected by the economic collapse, and you will eat really well while you are at it. Plus, you will save a ton of money. You will be glad you did.