When all things spoke the potato said,

‘set me warm, dig me warm, eat me warm that’s all I want.’

-Irish proverb


 I must grow potatoes.

It’s no different from my need for eating, sleeping, reading books and poking around in wild places. Potatoes run deep in my lineage.

For generations my Scandinavian ancestors grew potatoes in Sweden. As a boy, my great grandfather Eric arrived in Minnesota, having left his poverty stricken province of Småland in Sweden.

The family eventually settled in east-central Minnesota among other Scandinavian and German farmers. Here the well-drained, sandy soil was perfect for growing potatoes. It was the potato that grew my great grandfather’s farm here on the Anoka sand plain.

I am the fifth generation of my family to plant potatoes on this piece of land. I am compelled to tuck several pounds of cut potato seed into the ground every spring. I pat the soil over each earth-cradled piece of spud and silently urge it to greatness. I don’t grow potatoes by the acre like my ancestors did, but I still plant them.

The potato is an alien in Sweden and the United States. This starchy vegetable, a native of the Andes Mountains in South America, was shipped to Portugal in 1567. Up to that point the Inca Indians had cultivated it for 10,000 years.

Potatoes first arrived in Sweden around 1655. It took almost a hundred years before Jonas Alströmer, a pioneer in agriculture and industry, started testing the plant on his farm near Alingsås, prompting Swedish farmers to plant potatoes.

Great Grandpa Eric was known for his hard work ethic. The demand for potatoes was growing along with the human population. Consequently he converted acres of his wooded lands to farmland using dynamite and his team of three workhorses to clear stubborn stumps.

I wish there was a record of the number of wagonloads of potatoes that Great Grandpa Eric steered seven miles to one of the five starch factories in North Branch, Minnesota. In those years North Branch bragged that it was the “Potato Capital of the World.

Those annual heaps of potatoes made it possible for my great grandfather to buy his first automobile, a black 1915 Buick. Decades ago, an old hired hand of Eric’s told me that Eric’s car was the first auto in the township.

A few years after the Buick, the potato harvest yielded a new gas generator in his barn. Now he could milk cows under shining light bulbs. Then he strung wires from the barn, across the gravel road, to the big farmhouse, allowing the flow of electricity to turn night into day. This was the first electrical hook-up in the township.

His son, my grandfather, grew potatoes, but he also diversified as the sandy soil became more nutrient depleted and the potato harvest dwindled. His son, my father, won a medal for his potatoes at the Minnesota State Fair.

My potato growing efforts have not earned me any medals, recognition or new cars, but it has brought me an annual dose of humility.

My yearly harvest has often been compromised by seasonal battles with pocket gophers that also find the firm white flesh of the spud delicious. For the time being I am keeping their incisors at bay by growing the spuds in deep raised beds with a bottom of galvanized wire mesh to prevent tunneling raids.

But mostly I am humbled by the privilege to work a piece of land that our family has intimately known for over a century.

Every fall, I drop to my knees on this home place ground and push my fingers into the sandy soil beneath the collapsed and withered summer stem of the parent potato plant. Like a fallen flag of surrender, it shows me where to dig and blindly probe. Each carefully excavated potato is like a gift and results in a slight jolt of joy.

Satisfied that I have found all the spuds under the hill that I mounded last June, I crawl to the next hill, a measured length of my forearm from the first. Again and again, like a magician, I pull potatoes out of the ground and set them to the side to air dry.

In good years, there is a trail of potatoes like a lumpy pearl necklace delineating my harvest crawl. I linger on soiled knees to remind myself of the privilege of growing spuds here. I understand more completely that both the potato and I are of the earth.

Later, I gather them in a bent wire basket that was used by Great Grandpa Eric. I hold a potato in my grubby hand. Thin crescents of dirt under my fingernails and a heavy old basket are testimony of a job well done.

And now, I must eat potatoes.

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