A Moment in the Life of a Potato Farmer

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A more or less true story from my very early days.  I was the dreamer in the field staring at the sky.

The warm October sun hung over the tree line to the east and showered sun light over the potato field on this glorious morning in 1964. The morning light melted the white remnants of a light frost that fell on the open soil the previous night. A slight breeze blew from the northeast. The cloudless sky was blue. Birds sang from the distant tree canopy. It was one of those morning’s when you wished time could just stand still for; even if it was for a few winks of the human eye.


Bill stood by the tailgate of the ‘52 Dodge pickup truck sorting potatoes recently harvested and now stored in beat up round wooden bushel baskets. The truck, badly worn, was still a worthy farm truck. The fading red paint held proof of age and utility by its many scratches and the surface rust that graced the corners of the wheel wells. The heavy steel body had relatively few dents, but one of the corners on the rear bumper was bent down. The truck ran well save a warn clutch; the result of a young irreverent farm hand learning to drive in dusty fields.


Bill quickly transferred bruised and disfigured potatoes into an empty basket while waiting for more harvested potatoes to be loaded by his two young workers. One of the workers, a small industrious chap was a favorite of Bill. His name was Jeff and he could work 16 hours a day and would never let down. The other worker, a large, lumbering young fellow who liked to day dream while he worked was only kept on to fill the truck with potatoes. He was strong and so was useful when it came to heavy loads.


With each bushel of potatoes hauled from rows of recently harvested rows, Bill’s ever present grin broadened. This was when he was happiest. This was when the fruits of his labor were evident.

Bill worked days at the Post Office delivering mail, and at night and on weekends he farmed potatoes. Some would save, given the lack of profits, that it was more of a hobby than a business. Bill thought of potato farming as neither. He saw it as a way of being part of the earth. Nothing made him happier than a dirty set of hands.


Now in his late fifties, Bill hired help to get the harvest in. He ran the tractor during the harvest pulling along an old mechanical potato picker that garnished more rocks than spuds. He’d spend the early morning circling the field in the old tractor towing the rusty picker behind, each pass yielding a modest crop of Green Mountain potatoes. By mid-morning a few of the young workers were filling the old baskets with riches from the earth. In Bill’s mind a precious metal in the form of a potato.


Bill was slightly bent over from years of hard work. Perhaps a tad overweight he was once known for his great strength. These days he did not move quickly, but he was still somehow graceful with a steady, deliberate pace. He liked to describe his movements as “efficient”. Bill loved to tell the story of his broken muscle, a bicep torn from the tendon that curled up in his upper arm like a rolled up rug. He had little strength in his right arm these days. He didn’t really need the strength in the right arm; he had the big day dreaming kid for that.


While standing at the back of the truck he noticed a small white ’60 Rambler station wagon driving west on the adjacent road to the south of the potato field. He waved to the woman driving the car but she ignored him. You could tell by looking in his eyes that this made him a little sad. It was hard to be ignored by your own wife.


Bill had met his wife while in the hospital many years ago. She was a floor nurse assigned to take of him and he was quite taken by this young Florence Nightingale. Bill courted her, and somehow won her heart. One would have to assume their early marriage was quite good, they had several children. Bill was still married to the soil on the farm, something his wife could never adjust to. Eventually they would divorce.


As she drove away Bill looked at Jeff who was standing next to him and forced a smile.


“How could a pretty little woman be so ugly?” he declared. And then he would force a short, chattering laugh. Jeff would always laugh along, part of the reason that Bill liked him so much.

While the boys were picking up more bushels of potatoes scattered about the field Bill surveyed the landscape around the slightly less than 10 acre potato field. Bill calculated in his own mind that the field was nine and fifty seven/sixty fourths acres. One of Bill’s unusual traits was his obsession with odd fractions.


The soil recently turned over in search of spuds was sandy, dark with nutrients, and very rocky. The land was flat and well drained. It was a good spot for potatoes; this was his twentieth year of planting them in this very location. The field had a small, wooded hill to the east, a brushy hedgerow to the west, and to the north side was an unkept agricultural field that was going fallow. The old field was full of goldenrod, asters, and blackberries. Strawberries had once been grown there. The road on the south side was paved and shuffled a fair amount of traffic across the nearby state line. The road provided easy access to the field for tractors, trucks, and weary workers.

The truck was nearly full now; the last bushel loaded by Jeff. The dreamer was in the middle of the field staring at the sky.


“What the devil is that boy doing?” Bill said to Jeff.


“Thinking about all the money he is making!” cracked Jeff. This was an inside joke on the 55 cent an hour pay scale.


“Don’t complain high-pockets,” broke in Bill, “you’re making 75 cents an hour!”


“And worth every penny!” Jeff said with conviction.


“And another thing,” continued Bill. “the dreamer took 50,000 miles off my clutch learning to drive.

He should be working for free!”


Jeff laughed. The dreamer wouldn’t like working for free.


Bill picked up a potato and held it to the sky. He looked at it as if it were the first time he had ever seen a potato.


“You know, there’s a new type of potato they are growing in Alaska. I’m thinking about growing a few rows here.” declared Bill.


“Yeah, what’s it called?” inquired Jeff.


“Yukon Gold!” said Bill with a smile as he placed the potato in a bushel basket in the back of the box and rubbed his dirty hands on the pant legs of his overalls.


“A good name.” said Jeff.


“A wonderful name.” said Bill.


And with that he tucked himself behind the wheel of the ‘52 Dodge, feathered the clutch gingerly so as to keep it from slipping, and drove away with a big grin.


Jeff just stood there gazing at Bill’s exit with admiration. This hard working man had many good qualities not the least of which was his content view of life.


Bill drove onto the paved road, took a left hand turn, and brought another load of spuds to the storage bin in the cellar of the old farm house about a quarter mile down the road.


There would be plenty of time for chat later in the season when the potatoes were sorted before they were brought to market.


Written for www.wildramblings.com in August of 2009 for my good friend Jeff on his 57th birthday (8/19/09).

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