On our farm, we focus on grains and beans, but we also dabble in vegetables. Our “Research & Development” garden has produced one commercial crop so far, delicious hardneck garlic.
We use the garden to experiment with cover crops on a small scale: this year, we tried buckwheat and mustard. It’s quick and easy to broadcast and roll in just an eighth or a quarter of an acre, and we get to see the effects first-hand without too much investment.
There’s an ongoing pepper experiment in the garden, where this year we planted several varieties of hard-to-find heirloom peppers for seed.
The tiny, very spicy Texas chiltepin pepper (right) had to be moved indoors at the end of the season.
So while we have several other vegetables in the garden, research is a slow process, and the edible outcomes often end up being mostly a tool for expressing goodwill: something we share with workers, neighbors, and friends. And, of course, eat.
Research is important, and goodwill is essential to our farm’s survival. The potatoes, though, are planted for larger reasons: family, history, love, and memory.
My dad’s paternal grandfather, Peter Breslin, was born on a farm in County Donegal, Ireland. At the age of 16, he and his younger brother Frank (age 14) left their home to emigrate to the United States. It was a passage initiated not by excitement and adventure, but by necessity: land and employment were scarce, and children were plentiful. They had to make their own ways in the world. While he never wrote or called home after leaving in 1902, Grandpa Breslin never forgot the ways or politics of his homeland.
When he was an old man and my dad, his grandson (then called “Jack”) was about 6, Grandpa Breslin would give him lessons in growing spuds the way they did it at home in Cronkeerin. They would cut the potatoes so that only one eye showed, and then set it on a sunny window sill for a few days until it hardened. Then, the young grandson would help dig a trench in his grandfather’s small back yard on the south side of Chicago, and together they would plant them. In the fall, the young knees would be called on again, and little Jack would dig the potatoes with his grandfather while he listened to stories from the old country.
So that’s why we grow potatoes on the farm.
And that’s why we do it the old-fashioned way. In the early spring, we handle each seed potato carefully, studying it to find the eyes and the best way to cut it. We till the beds and then plant on our knees, crawling down the rows for hours, pushing the potato pieces deep into the soil, being careful to keep the eye pointed toward the sun.
We found a tool that helps with the hilling, an antique ride-behind that my dad has fixed up as a labor of love.
The tool does the first pass, uprooting weeds and loosening the soil. Then we walk the rows, carefully pulling the dirt up with a hoe to make a perfect hill along the potato plants.
We scout the potato rows daily when the Colorado potato beetles make their debut in the spring, treating with diatomaceous earth, ground up shells from tiny sea creatures that dehydrate the insects from the inside out. We apply the DE carefully, trying not to hit any other plant or insect matter to limit its effects to the potato beetles as much as possible.
At harvest time in the fall, the only tool we use is a potato fork.
It’s a two-person job: my dad does the digging, carefully wielding his father’s garden fork. I crawl along the row after him, snagging the potatoes as soon as they are revealed, digging through the loose dirt with my bare fingers, searching for that firm, round shape, pointing out where I think there might be more gems hidden beneath the hill and its thin cover of weeds and dead potato stalks.
As I paw through the damp, rich soil, I unearth all manner of other things: dandelion roots, overwintering larvae, discarded exoskeletons. “Huh, wonder what that is,” I say. “Think it’s a beneficial insect?” Every once in a while we accidentally disrupt an ant nest and send the workers scurrying hither and yon, tiny white eggs held high. This is one of the most visceral connections to the land, swathed in layers of warm clothing, crawling through newly-turned dirt in search of food. We will eat that food, simply cooked, the next day and through the winter.
After a while, there’s really no need to talk, but I still say, “Ooh, a good one!” whenever something fist-sized or larger turns up, or “Jackpot!” when we find 5 or 6 good-sized potatoes on the same plant. And sometimes my dad tells me about when he used to do this with his grandfather, roles reversed, when he was the one crawling along on the potato treasure-hunt.
Years later, in 1974, my dad and his new bride traveled to Grandpa Breslin’s first home in Ardara, County Donegal. There he found his second cousins growing up in the same thatched cottage where his grandfather was born and planting spuds in the same patch that his grandfather had used.
Now you can rent that same cottage from our cousin Laurence, who has become a good friend of my dad’s. In fact, we took these pictures when we were digging the spuds just to send to him.
Even though the backyard of that house on the South Side is gone, sacrificed to the Dan Ryan expressway, our connection to Grandpa Breslin and the old country live again every time we tend to the spuds.
Our neighbors may think we’re crazy to be out here in the cold, my dad straining his aching knees and me crawling around in the dirt. They probably buy their potatoes at the grocery store like most folks nowadays. But I love it.