Old style potato farming

In no other form can so large an amount and value of human food be obtained from an acre of ground as in that of edible roots or tubers; and of these the Potato is by far the most acceptable, and in most general use. Our ancestors, it is settled, were destitute and ignorant of the Potato prior to the discovery of America, though Europe would now find it difficult to subsist her teeming millions without it. In travelling pretty widely over that continent, I cannot remember that I found, any considerable district in which the Potato was not cultivated, though Ireland, western England, and northern Switzerland, with a small portion of northern Italy, are impressed on my mind as the most addicted to the growth of this esculent.

Other roots are eaten occasionally, by way of variety, or as giving a relish to ordinary food; but the Potato alone forms part of the every day diet alike of prince and peasant. It is an almost indispensable ingredient of the feasts of Dives, while it is the cheapest and commonest resort for satiating or moderating the hunger of Lazarus. I recollect hearing my parents, fifty years ago, relate how, in their childhood and youth, the poor of New-England, when the grain-crop of that region was cut short, as it often was, were obliged to subsist through the following Winter mainly on Potatoes and Milk; and I then accorded to those unfortunates of the preceding generation a sympathy which I should now considerably abate, provided the Potatoes were of good quality.

Roasted Potatoes, seasoned with salt and butter and washed down with bounteous draughts of fresh buttermilk, used in those days to be the regular supper served up in farmers’ homes after a churning of cream into butter; and I have since eaten costly suppers that were not half so good.

The Potato, say some accredited accounts, was first brought to Europe from Virginia, by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1586 or 1587; but I do not believe the story. Authentic tradition affirms that the Potato was utterly unknown in New-England, or at all events east of the Connecticut, when the Scotch-Irish who first settled Londonderry, N. H., came over from old Londonderry, Ireland, bringing the Potato with them. They spent the Winter of 1719 in different parts of Massachusetts and Maine—quite a number of them at Haverhill, Mass., where they gave away a few Potatoes for seed, on leaving for their own chosen location in the Spring; and they afterward learned that the English colonists, who received them, tried hard to find or make the seed-balls edible the next Fall but were obliged to give it up as a bad job; leaving the tubers untouched and unsuspected in the ground.

I doubt that the Potato was found growing by Europeans in any part of this country, unless it be in that we have acquired from Mexico. It is essentially a child of the mountains, and I presume it grew wild nowhere else than on the sides of the great chain which traversed Spanish America, at a height of from 5,000 to 8,000 feet above the surface of the ocean. Here it found a climate cooled by the elevation and moistened by melting snows from above and by frequent showers, yet one which seldom allowed the ground to be frozen to any considerable depth, while the pure and bracing atmosphere was congenial to its nature and requirements. In this country, the Potato is hardiest and thriftiest among the White Mountains of New-Hampshire, the Green Mountains of Vermont, on the Catskills and kindred elevations in our own State, and in similar regions of Pennsylvania and the States further South and West.

My own place is at least 15 miles from, and 500 feet above, Long Island Sound; yet I cannot make the Potato, by the most generous treatment, so prolific as it was in New-Hampshire in my boyhood, where I dug a bushel from 14 hills, grown on rough, hard ground, but which, having just been cleared of a thick growth of bushes and briars, was probably better adapted to this crop than though it had been covered an inch deep with barn-yard manure.

He who has a tolerably dry, warm sandy soil, covered two or three inches deep with decayed or decaying leaves and brush, may count with confidence on raising from it a good crop of Potatoes, provided his seed be sound and healthy. On the other hand, all authorities agree that animal manures, unless very thoroughly rotted and intimately mixed with the soil, are injurious to the quality of Potatoes grown thereon, stimulating any tendency to disease, if they do not originally produce such disease. I believe that Swamp Muck, dug in Summer or Autumn, deposited on a dry bank or glade, and cured of its acidity by an admixture of Wood-Ashes, of Lime, or of Salt (better still, of Lime and Salt chemically compounded by dissolving the Salt in the least possible quantity of Water, and slaking the lime with that Water), forms an excellent fertilizer for Potatoes, if administered with a liberal hand. A bushel of either of these alkalies to a cord of muck is too little; the dose should be doubled if possible; but, if the quantity be small, mix it more carefully, and give it all the time you can wherein to operate upon the muck before applying the mixture to your fields.

Where the muck is not easily to be had, yet the soil is thin and poor, I would place considerable reliance on deep plowing and subsoiling in the Fall, and cross-plowing just before planting in the Spring. Give a good dressing of Plaster, not less than 200 lbs. to the acre, directly after the Fall plowing; if you have Ashes, scatter them liberally in the drill or hill as you plant; and, if you have them not, supply their place with Super-phosphate or Bone-dust. I think many farmers will be agreeably surprised by the additional yield which will accrue from this treatment of their soil.

Those who have no swamp muck, and feel that they can afford the outlay, may, by plowing or subsoiling early in the Fall, seeding heavily with rye, and turning this under when the time comes for planting in the Spring, improve both crop and soil materially. But even to these I would say: Apply the Gypsum in the Fall, and the Ashes or Lime and Salt mixture in the Spring; and now, with good seed and good luck, you will be reasonably sure of a bounteous harvest. If a farmer, having a poor worn-out field of sandy loam, wants to do his very best by it, let him plow, subsoil, sow rye and plaster in the Fall, as above indicated, turn this under, and sow buckwheat late in the next Spring; plow this under in turn when it has attained its growth, and sow to clover; turn this down the following Spring, and Plant to late potatoes, and he will not merely obtain a large crop, but have his land in admirable condition for whatever way follow.

I am quite well aware that such an outlay of labor and seed, with an entire loss of crop for one season, will seem to many too costly. I do not advise it except under peculiar circumstances; and yet I am confident that there are many fields that would be doubled in value by such treatment, which would richly repay all its cost. That most farmers could not afford thus to treat their entire farms at once, is very true; yet it does not follow that they might not deal with field after field thus thoroughly, living on the products of 40 or 50 acres, while they devoted five or six annually to the work of thorough renovation.

A quarter of a century ago, we were threatened with a complete extinction of the Potato, as an article of food: the stalks, when approaching or just attaining maturity, were suddenly smitten with fatal disease—usually, after a warm rain followed by scalding sunshine—the growing tubers were speedily affected; they rotted in the ground, and they rotted nearly as badly if dug; and whole townships could hardly show a bushel of sound Potatoes.

A desolating famine in Ireland, which swept away or drove into exile nearly two millions of her people, was the most striking and memorable result of this wide-spread disaster. For several succeeding seasons, the Potato was similarly, though not so extensively, affected; and the fears widely expressed that the day of its usefulness was over, seemed to have ample justification. Speaking generally, the Potato has never since been so hardy or prolific as it was half a century ago; it has gradually recovered, however, from its low estate, and, though the malady still lingers, and from time to time renews its ravages in different localities, the farmer now plants judiciously and on fit ground, with a reasonable hope that his labor will be duly rewarded.

It seems to be generally agreed that clayey soils are not adapted to its growth; that, if the quantity of the crop be not stinted, its quality is pretty sure to be inferior; and I can personally testify that the planting of Potatoes on wet soil—that is, on swampy or spongy land which has not been thoroughly drained and sweetened—is a hopeless, thriftless labor—that the crop will seldom be worth the seed.

As to the ten or a dozen different insects to which the Potato-rot has been attributed, I regard them all as consequences, not causes; attracted to prey on the plant by its sickly, weakly condition, and not really responsible for that condition. If any care for my reasons, let him refer to what I have said of the Wheat-plant and its insect enemies.[1]

There has been much discussion as to the kind of seed to be planted; and I think the result has been a pretty general conviction that it is better to cut the tuber into pieces having two or three eyes each, than to plant it whole, since the whole Potato sends up a superfluity of stalks, with a like effect on the crop to that of putting six or eight kernels of corn in each hill.

Small Potatoes are immature, unripe, and of course should never be planted, since their progeny will be feeble and sickly. Select for seed none but thoroughly ripe Potatoes, and the larger the better.

My own judgment favors planting in drills rather than hills, with ample space for working between them; not less than 30 inches: the seed being dropped about 6 inches apart in the drill. The soil must be deep and mellow, for the Potato suffers from drouth much sooner than Indian Corn or almost any other crop usually grown among us. I believe in covering the seed from 2 to 2-1/2 inches; and I hold to flat or level culture for this as for everything else. Planting on a ridge made by turning two furrows together may be advisable where the land is wet; but then wet land never can be made fit for cultivation, except by underdraining. And I insist upon setting the rows or drills well apart, because I hold that the soil should often be loosened and stirred to a good depth with the subsoil plow; and that this process should be persevered in till the plant is in blossom. Hardly any plant will pay better for persistent cultivation than the Potato.

As to varieties, I will only say that planting the tubers for seed is an unnatural process, which tends and must tend to degeneracy. The new varieties now most prized will certainly run out in the course of twenty or thirty years at furthest, and must be replaced from time to time by still newer, grown from the seed. This creation of new species is, and must be, a slow, expensive process; since not one in a hundred of these varieties possess any value. I don’t quite believe in selling—I mean in buying—Potatoes at $1 per pound; but he who originates a really valuable new Potato deserves a recompense for his industry, patience, and good fortune; and I shall be glad to learn that he receives it.

This article was taken from,



Published: 1871