Thursday, October 11, 2007

Thursday, just another day....yeah, right.

Today is tater digging day. We grow lots of sweet potatoes, which have to be harvested before frost because if the vines die off due to the cold, the tubers will be ruined. Now, whether that is an old wives' tale or the gospel according to Farmer John, we are not going to chance it. So now that there are some potentially cold temps coming, we are a-diggin' so we don't get caught with a surprise frosting with taters still in the ground.

By the way, for those of you who don't know this, North Carolina is the leading producer of Sweet Potatoes in the US, accounting for about 40% of the entire supply. Sweet Potatoes are also native to the warmer parts of North America and have been cultivated for 5000+ years. Sweet Potatoes are highly nutritious, delicious and easy to prepare. Sweet Potatoes are only distant cousins of real potatoes and even more distant cousins to the yam. If you would like to read more about the history of sweet potatoes visit SWEET POTATOES

All kidding aside, we are harvesting sweet potatoes this week. The last of three patches will be dug soon and it will take the better part of the day.The first step to harvesting sweet potatoes on a small scale is to chop down the vines. This is one of the only harvests we do with the tractor. It is just too labor intensive to do it any other way with just 2 people. So, the Farmer will mow down the vines. Next comes the hard part, the part that requires a lot of finesse with the tractor. There is no special implement used for this part, so one of the single blade plows will be used to go down the side of each tow. As the blade of the plow digs down into the dirt, it lifts that dirt along the side of the row.

Theoretically, it will also lift the potatoes out of the ground as it moves the dirt along. I say theoretically because you never know where the potatoes are growing exactly, so you might chop a lot of them into pieces, unless you are very good with the tractor. Thanks goodness the Farmer is very good with operating the tractor. Sometimes it takes 3-4 passes down the rows to get all of the potatoes out, so it is a relatively long process. Very few potatoes come out chopped in two so I consider this a testament to the patience and skill of the Farmer. We don't really like to use the tractor for anything that is not absolutely necessary. Since digging up all these hills of potatoes by hand would take weeks, we bite the bullet and use a little mechanization to help. We have harvested sweet potatoes, one hill at a time but we only did that once...experience is, after all, a great teacher.

After all of the potatoes are up out of the ground, we pile them up and leave them in the field for at least a day in the sun, to dry the skins and make them less susceptible to bruising and scuffing. After they dry a bit, we pick them up and put them in a small trailer and take them back to the 'tater shed, where they are sorted by size. As I sort them, I look for ones that are damaged because they won't store as well over the long haul. We try to use those up ourselves as quickly as possible.

Sweet potatoes tubers grow in a main cluster close to the plant but progressively smaller ones grow out from the larger ones, almost in a chain. You will never see these teeny taters in the supermarket because the ones in stores are graded according to size and only ones that are "baking size" are sent to stores. Also, the big ones that look like footballs are rarely seen. Customers at markets are always amazed at the varied sizes and shapes of our sweet potatoes so I try to explain how they really grow.

It seems to me that there a lot of people who have gross misconceptions about how things grow, which I blame on supermarkets. Americans have been brainwashed into thinking that if a vegetable is not perfect, it is defective when in fact, a totally uniform, perfectly unblemished fruit or vegetable is the one that is kind of unnatural. (I am not talking about obviously damaged produce, I am talking about the shape, size, etc.)

To get consumers to buy them, marketing geniuses have dubbed heirloom tomatoes that grow in irregular shapes "ugly" tomatoes, probably to make them seem novel. The fact is that those "pleated" tomatoes are a specific variety and they have always looked that way. Growing up, I don't think I ever had a tomato that was perfectly round, except for Tommy Toes. My granny must be slapping her knee over that one (Granny passed on in 2001, but she is still looking over my shoulder, critiquing my gardening methods, I am sure of it.)