How I Became a Potato Farmer

(03/19/2009) I like to dig in dirt. To let all the bad stuff in me go down into the ground and all the good stuff in the ground come up into me. And that is why I became a potato farmer.

Durell Godfrey, Photographer

I was blessed with a small piece of land in Long Island where happy potatoes grow. I started out small but my bounty grew and grew. Sometimes I believe my good luck began on that morning when into my life arrived an Iraqi refugee and then at sunset a homeless American.

I remember the chilly evening when the tall bearded American appeared at my gate. He was disoriented and afraid. His job did not pay enough for a roof over his head and his cardboard box had been discovered.

I invited him in to have dinner with me and my other indigent saint, who happened to be an Iraqi refugee. How was I to know it was most profitable to dine with indigent saints?

The homeless American, the Iraqi refugee, and I sat down to large bowls of potato soup and tall glasses of milk with a side of fried potato skins.

The refugee from Baghdad had fled to Damascus, from Damascus to the United States, and had ended up in Long Island and at my dinner table for the reason that Fate never makes much sense. He had worked in the Green Zone for an American company and Al Qaeda did not like that so they killed his brother because Al Qaeda thought mistakenly it was he. They also killed his father. The potato was cultivated 4,000 years ago but so far we have been unable to cultivate peace.

The moist waxy American homeless man, the dry mealy Iraqi homeless man, and I discussed important food crops, the potato being one.

The American homeless man noted that the poor are the principal consumers of potatoes. The Iraqi homeless man noted that the potato is the most important vegetable in the world. I noted that if you depend on potatoes for a living, you must admit to yourself the potential hazards of blight, inclement weather, imperfect storage.

I told them to eat as much as you like. I thought to myself, “I consider what has been done to you has been done to myself.”

The American had been a sound engineer in Hollywood before the show went off the air. The Iraqi had been an environmental engineer in Baghdad before the country that he knew went off the map.

I said to them, “I’ll give you room and board and some of the profit if we can make a profit out of a potato farm.”

They happily agreed to be the sound engineer and the environmental engineer for my potato farm.

The first thing the Iraqi environmental engineer did was round up all the old stones in the field and design a welcoming path to the world. He drove stakes into the ground and tied string to the stakes and measured and thought and designed and sweated and made the most beautiful winding path I have ever seen.

The first thing the American sound engineer did was to rig up some nice music for my four chickens, one pig, and one dairy cow. It was the most beautiful music I have ever heard. The animals thrived.

We then prepared the ground for the potatoes. The American did the plowing once. The Iraqi did the plowing once. Then I did a little of the third plowing. Being older and in questionable health, I was mostly in charge of cooking, administration, and the weather. I did the latter job well and provided enough water with all the rain.

Also I put myself in charge of root-weeds. I detest root-weeds. Potatoes detest root-weeds. So I was diligent in eliminating them, much to the satisfaction of the crop. Generally speaking the potatoes were quite content. It is my belief that their contentment made them prolific.

Being in charge of the weather, I made sure to get ahead of the heavy frost, the archenemy of the potato. I don’t want bruising. I don’t want rotting. I want undamaged potatoes taken out of the ground before they look at me and say, “Br-r-r, we’re too cold.”

On the exactly right day, my hands reach down into the ground and pull out delicate young tubers, carefully leaving the plant in place. The American and Iraqi and I have these new potatoes for dinner, at which time we discuss spading forks – the smooth long handle, the three prongs. I tell them that I can look at a spading fork and know it is time to unearth potatoes and to get in touch with the earth.

To dig up potatoes the American and the Iraqi first used a plow. The more successful we became, the more sophisticated the equipment became. Eventually they scooped up potatoes with a huge potato harvester. Choppers, shakers, blowers. All kinds of mechanical equipment to separate the potatoes from the dirt.

The American drove the wagon with the harvested potatoes, the Iraqi helped put the potatoes into storage, and I milked the cow. And I made dinner. And when I made dinner it always included potatoes: boiled potatoes mashed with fresh milk and butter, baked potatoes with sour cream, with the skin, without the skin, whole or diced, hot potatoes or cold potato salad, French-fried potatoes, dumplings, pancakes. The smell permeated the air.

Soon buyers followed their nose. Then they followed their eyes, drawn to the enchanting winding stone path. Then they piped their ears into the music as they touched the wooden gate and expectantly walked into our world.

Not only were we selling potatoes but we traded one chicken for a pig, then the pig thrived and we traded the pig for a cow. Then another cow and another. Bought another field. Grew more potatoes.

People started buying potatoes for reasons that went beyond our imagination. One scientist was doing a study about starch that is resistant to getting digested in the stomach and moves right along into the large intestine. He was so into resistant starch that his pharmaceutical increased our wealth twofold.

Following him were the woman who said that potatoes reduce fat storage, the doctor who said potatoes protect his patients from colon cancer, and the glucose tolerance people, and insulin sensitivity people.

When I look back at my life as a potato farmer I always see a couple of potato eyes looking back at me, and I smile as I think of planting just a piece of potato in a little mound of dirt.

Many years have passed, many abundant harvests reaped. The Iraqi has gone safely home. The American has built a home and a life for himself. As for me, I have been blessed with no potato beetles or blights and only indigent saints.