Thoughts for Food #5

Potato PlanterLet the season begin!

It’s April, and in the Central Sands farmers are beginning to stir and get ready for action in the fields!  The wind is from the south, and gentle spring rains are recharging the groundwater. The landscape is about to be awoken and soon to be thriving with growing vegetables–the Central Sands region is one of the nation’s premier potato and vegetable production areas. Just the warm and earthy smell of the soil after rain is an elixir to the farmers; they are ready for the season to begin!

Farmers have been preparing to plant for the past few weeks with potato seed that took 3-4 years to produce in the northern reaches of the state,  by carefully warming them to soil temperature and cutting them into perfect 2-3 ounce pieces that will give the new plant all it needs to grow and flourish. After cutting, the seed pieces are given a few days to grow a new protective skin that will prevent potential rots and avoid the need for artificial protectant. Now, it’s time to plant.

The simple machines of yesteryear planted single rows at whatever pace the horses wanted to plod. One farmer held the reins to keep the rows straight while another rode the back. His job was to feed the potato seed pieces into a device that dropped them, somewhat haphazardly, into furrows opened by the planter and then closed and covered them with a hill to protect the daughter tubers. This was a two-horsepower, two-farmer operation that was tediously slow but still a huge improvement on its predecessor that required a spade and bucket. In those early days, it might take a family two months of backbreaking work to plant just 20 acres. As Justin Isherwood, a 7th generation farmer from Plover, recalls with a grin: “we worked hard and we ate like wolverines!”

The horse drawn, one-row was a vast improvement, but still fell far short of the efficiency needed to feed today’s hungry population. To remain in business and meet society’s food demands, it’s not unusual for these same family farms to grow upwards of 750 acres of potatoes!  Wisconsin springs tend to be short and this means the farmers have to plant all those potatoes in a 4-5 week stretch when nature provides them this opportunity.

Modern planters have evolved to meet this need; they plant 4-12 rows at a time and often pull themselves using the power of 250 horses. They use precision technology to place the seed pieces at the exact spacing and depth needed to produce the myriad of end products demanded by the market place. They even use GPS technology and auto-steer to ensure efficient land use.  Remarkably, these advances make it possible for a single farmer to get the entire crop planted in the narrow window that nature provides.

Although modern farm machinery is expensive, it is a necessary investment because today’s consumers are more demanding than ever. As many as 25 varieties and specialty potatoes are planted each spring to meet the diverse needs of the marketplace.  These varieties range from russets for the fresh market (great baked potatoes) and processing (fries and tater tots products), round whites  for mashing and chips, red, yellow and even blue fleshed ones for salads, to odd-shaped, multicolored fingerlings.  All of these require precise planting depths, spacing and fertility regimes that can only be provided by today’s modern machinery. So when you take that spring drive through the Central Sands and marvel at the sheer size of the farm machinery you see, remember that these are what are needed to supply the supermarkets of the 21st century with the diverse varieties of potatoes and vegetables we love.  Let the growing season begin!

Comments are closed.