POTATO JACK POT
In the Maritimes potato growing is more than a business; it’s an art, a game—and the biggest gamble in agriculture
G. C. CUNNINGHAM is a big good-natured man who seldom loses his temper but who just can’t understand why certain misguided individuals (including people who write articles) persist in referring to the potato as the “lowly spud.”
“Lowly spud!” he snorts. “I want to tell you a thing or two ...”
When he has finished, you realize that the annual potato crop of this sad old globe is three billion hundredweight, compared with an annual wheat crop of two billion hundredweight; that potatoes, not bread, are the staff of life, and that wartime potato shortages have caused Canadian housewives to gnash teeth and tear hair, and worked particular hardship on families in the low income brackets.
“Furthermore,” Mr. Cunningham concludes, “if all the potatoes grown in a year were put in railway cars, and the cars were placed end to end, they would reach five times around the equator.”
In case you are wondering why he champions the potato so ardently, Mr. Cunningham is the potato expert of the New Brunswick Department of Agriculture, and New Brunswick is the top potatoproducing province of our nation. New Brunswick’s potato crop last fall was 17,000,000 bushels, had a value estimated at between 15 and 20 million dollars, prevented a widespread potato famine here at home, and helped feed the fighting men of the United Nations overseas. The province is a major factor in the production of seed for the whole western hemisphere, exporting to the United States and South America.
Hon. James Gardiner, Federal Minister of Agriculture, hails from Saskatchewan and is accustomed to the huge-scale agricultural operations of the prairies. New Brunswick’s gigantic potato patches made even Mr. Gardiner blink. East on a tour, he was escorted to a hilltop. All around, wherever he looked,
the potato fields stretched away into the distance.
“This,” exclaimed Mr. Gardiner, “is tremendous. It’s the way we grow wheat in the West.”
The hilltop was in the centre of one of the greatest potato regions of this continent. The folks down East call it the “Potato Belt” and it takes in hundreds of thousands of acres along the upper reaches of the St. John River and its tributaries. The arable land in the area suitable for potatoes has been estimated at between two and three million acres, but much of it has never been cultivated. A planted acreage last season of 60,300 acres would indicate a total acreage suitable for potatoes of 240,000 at least, since potatoes are grown on the same land only once in every four years.
The average yield per acre in New Brunswick last year was 288.3 bushels compared with 100 bushels in Nova Scotia, 136.6 in Prince Edward Island, 98.3 in Quebec and 108.3 in Ontario. Thus New Brunswick got over twice the yield per acre of any eastern province.
The potato belt straddles the international boundary and is shared by New Brunswick and Maine. Here a potato is never just a potato. It’s a Green Mountain, a Cobbler, a Bliss, a Katahdin—and the smallest children know the difference. Whatever its variety the potato is regarded with proper deference and respect.
I’ve seen a long, lean, rawboned farmer pick up a potato, hold it tenderly, gaze at it as a jeweller would gaze at a flawless diamond, and murmur, in the tone of a lover talking of his sweetheart, “How beautiful.”
To understand that you have to understand that potatoes are more than a business in the potato belt. They’re a hobby, a fascinating game. They’re the biggest gamble in agriculture. You bet on them the way a plunger bets on the race horses. One year they
take you to the cleaner. Next year they make you rich. They have sold for 10 cents a barrel. They have sold for $12 a barrel. No other farm product is subject to such violent price fluctuations.
Let the city man who feels a bit daring when he takes a $10 flier on the outcome of a prize fight consider the risks taken by his country cousin in the potato belt.
In 1942 and 1943 growers were safe in assuming that exceptionally heavy food requirements would keep potato prices bumping against the ceiling set by the Government. That is also the outlook for 1944.
But ordinarily the grower has no more idea whether he will make or lose money when he plants in the spring than a roulette player has before the croupier spins the wheel. “Are we going to dig 10 cent ’talers this time—or $10 ’taters?” he’ll ask his neighbor.
“Probably,” the standard answer to this query is, “an early frost will get ’em before we dig at all.”
After the harvest, after the potatoes are safely stored, they’re still a gamble. The farmer has to decide whether to sell immediately or hold on. If he sells immediately (this, at least, was the case before price ceilings and may be after them) he’s likely to see
the price rise as much as 500% through the winter. If he holds on lie’s just as likely to see it tumble.
One September a grower I know refused an offer of $8,250 for part of his crop, expecting to get double this by midwinter. In midwinter he sold his lot of tubers for $500.
The cost of growing potatoes runs around $100 an acre. Thus an average grower, with 25 acres of potatoes, will have out-of-pocket expenses of $2,500. Going back through the records you find that in his worst years lie has lost $2,250 in a season, while in his best years he has cleared a tidy net of $22,500.
One major grower and shipper in New Brunswick chuckles about the attack of influenza which netted him $10,000. The market was sagging and he hurried to Boston to sell his crop. Before he could get in touch with prospective buyers he was taken ill. By the time he recovered so had the market. His tubers brought $10,000 more than they would have brought had he disposed of them before he went to the hospital.
Guy Porter, Andover, N.B., another potato shipper, will toll you how he paid laborers 10 cents a barrel a few years ago to clear his warehouses of potatoes lie couldn’t sell. “I bought them,” he recalls, “and then I had to pay to get rid of them. If I had them now they’d be wort h a fortune.”
Mr. Porter had his sad experience during the depression. But last year and the year before were both jack pot years. And in this spring of 1944 the men of the potato belt, busy at their planting, expect another jack pot in the coming fall. Their pockets, empty a while back, bulge now with folding money. Few of them owe anybody a red cent.
A typical grower told me he owned his farm again every last nail and shingle, every last field and fence.
“The old homestead,” he said, “was mortgaged clean up to the roof. Potatoes put the mortgage on. Potatoes took it off. That’s potatoes for you
Works Harder Than Most
ALL FARMERS work hard —but the . potato farmer works harder than most, from May until the end of September. From dawn to dark he cultivates, hoes, sprays. Tubers are prey to a dozen diseases. When the small sprouts are up an inch he has to cover them with earth. He goes through this process three times. Weeds, bugs and blight are his mortal enemies—a ghastly trio that give him nightmares as he sleeps.
Then comes the harvest—and a race against advancing winter.
If there is a rainy spell the potato fields become a sea of mud and picking is held up. Meanwhile the nights are getting colder.
Occasionally hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of potatoes have been caught by a freeze-up. There’s always this danger—this reason for haste. So it’s always hurry, hurry, hurry get ’em in before they freeze.
The average potato grower has a better home than the average mixed farmer. He adds to it, fixes it up, paints it and buys new furniture when he has a good year. He’can afford to do this because his good years are very good. He has a tendency, 1 suspect, to look down a bit on other branches of agriculture. When he loses his shirt he shrugs and grins and doesn’t squawk. “You’ve got to expect it once in a while,” he says.
If you don’t believe rolling a 165-pound barrel can be an art, you ought to see him roll one. He leans more to muscle than fat. He’s a wizard at taking machinery apart and putting it together again. He studies is a scientific agriculturalist. And in a business deal not very many people can put anything over on him and they never do it. a second time.
Transients flocked into New Brunswick towns like Woodstock and Andover, Grand Falls and Edmundston. Micmacs and Malecites left their reservations to give the palefaces a hand at spud-gathering. But even then there was a labor shortage—a frantic race to get the potatoes out of the ground before the winter freeze-up.
There were communities where every able-bodied person men, women and children—went potato picking. With lots of them the motive was patriotism, not money. Potatoes were badly needed, so mayors, councillors, members of the legislature, clubwomen, preachers, teachers, grandfathers, grandmothers and
toddlers donned overalls and got backaches bending over endless potato hills.
Many a village store was locked up by day at the height of the picking season and sported a crudely printed sign in the window which said, “Gone picking —open evenings only this week.”
I stopped at one of the larger hotels in northeastern Maine. A girl about 18 presided as desk clerk. “If you want to stay here,” she said, “I can let you have a room, but I’m warning you that our service isn’t so good right now. In fact we haven’t any service. Bellboys, chambermaids, cooks, dishwashers—they’re all out picking potatoes. All right, Mister, register here. Your room’s on the third floor and I’m sorry but you’ll have to carry your own bag. Oh, yes, and you’ll have to walk. The elevator’s not running.”
Even schoolboys and schoolgirls in the potato belt have plump bank accounts and money in Victory Bonds these days. They earned as much as $12 a day in New Brunswick, and more in Maine, helping harvest last season’s crop. I know of one family, father, mother and seven youngsters from 19 years old down to eight who made $1,000 in 16 days picking
potatoes. In Maine there were pickers who got 20 cents a barrel and picked 100 barrels daily. Which adds up to 20 bucks for a day’s toil.
When the pickers were through, all the potato houses (frostproof, peak-roofed cellars which hold anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 barrels each) were full. Spare bedrooms, attics—yes, and living rooms, too —were given over to potato storage. In Maine the state highway department brought out its heavy equipment and worked 24 hours a day digging deep pits. These were lined with straw, and potatoes which could not be stored anywhere else were buried in them until heated refrigerator cars could be found to carry them to distant markets.
The crop was the largest in history.
This art and science of potato growing starts deep in the woods in clearings called “foundation areas.” Isolated by forest, elaborately protected by law, these are devoted to the cultivation of “foundation stock.” Seed potatoes are grown from foundation stock; table potatoes from seed potatoes.
The reason for foundation areas (they have them nowhere but in the potato belt) is a tiny fly, the aphis, which carries diseases from one potato plant to another in the same manner as a mosquito carries malaria from one man to'another. Foundation areas, with miles of tall timbers around them, can’t be easily reached by the pesky aphis.
Government plant pathologists watch over foundation stock as carefully as a mother ever watched an infant. These spuds have to be perfect in shape, color, texture, flavor—absolutely free from disease. They have to be pedigreed and registered like prize livestock —have to be the finest potatoes, the healthiest potatoes, the cleanest potatoes that it’s possible to grow.
“It’s kind of a lonely life,” a foundation grower told me. “Here you are, in the wilderness, cut off from everything by your job. But heck look how the lighthouse keepers down the coast live. And they don’t have ’taters to keep them interested.”
In foundation areas potatoes are planted by the
“tuber unit method.” Standing over the potato hill you carefully quarter each seed potato and put the four pieces into the ground side by side. You do this so that if a plant grown from any one quarter shows disease you can locate the plants grown from the other three quarters (which might look perfectly healthy but wouldn’t be) and destroy them all.
Seed for ordinary potatoes is cut before it is taken to the field, and planted entirely by machinery.
Plant pathologists, entomologists and agriculturalists work hand in hand to develop more effective sprays, better methods of cultivation, disease-resisting tuber strains. They know that their export markets depend on quality and that if they do not maintain this their industry will be crippled. They also know that the potato, which most people think of as being hardy, is prey to more ills than any fragile flower you can name.
One odd thing they have found out: That potatoes thrive best in hilly country where upcurrents of wind fan the underside of the foliage.
The whole output of foundation stock goes to seed growers, who, in turn, adhere to rigid standards of inspection and sell for seed purposes only those potatoes certified as diseasefree by agricultural officials. The boast of the potato belt is that it produces the best seed in the world (although growers allow, with reluctant fairness, that Prince Edward Island grows pretty good seed too). That the boast isn’t idle is shown by the demand for New Brunswick and Maine seed in foreign countries.
Back in 1935, when the potato industry seemed on its last legs, Mr. Cunningham packed his sample cases with spuds and made a jaunt to South America for the New Brunswick Government.
“I’m selling potatoes—seed potatoes,” he announced to such dignitaries as the heads of state of Argentina, Brazil and assorted other republics.
“But this,” more than one of them pointed out, “is the home of the potato. Don’t you know, my good man, that potatoes have been grown here since the days of the Incas? Don’t you know that the Spanish conquistadors took the first potatoes from South America to Europe as a curiosity in 1535?” “Potatoes,” Mr. Cunningham parried, “have come a long way since 1535. Let me tell you about the yield per acre we get in New Brunswick ...”
The South Americans were impressed—so much so that a couple of years later their annual imports ran to seven hundred thousand crates (weighing 150 pounds each) of New Brunswick seed.
In the famed Mendoza Valley, in Argentina, growers had been harvesting about 30 bushels to the acre. It takes 15 bushels to plant an acre, so the yield was two potatoes for one. With New Brunswick seed they got an average of 225 bushels to the acre, or a yield of 15 potatoes for one.
Mendoza Valley was soon shipping 400 carloads of potatoes a season. It had formerly shipped 20 carloads.
After the first year Mr. Cunningham didn't have to strain his salesmanship. The South Americans were clamoring to buy. Because seed potatoes are so urgently required in Canada just now, New Brunswick growers can’t give them all they want—can give them very little of what they want—but they are keeping that market in mind for after the war.
Seeds For Cuba
IVfEW BRUNSWICK long ago developed a big 1 i market for seed potatoes in Cuba. One of the men who pioneered this was Hon. Fred W. Pirie, New Brunswick Minister of Lands and Mines, who is not only a major shipper but grows more potatoes himself than anybody else in Canada. A legendary figure in the potato belt, he had his private airplane and pilot before the war, to fly down to Cuba and drop in on his customers.
A tall, athletic man, who gels a huge kick out of life, he counts among his friends most of the political leaders of the Cuban republic, as well as most of the planters. He, and other New Brunswickers, not only persuaded the Cubans to buy seed potatoes, but showed them how to plant and cultivate these in such a way as to get best results. This was a policy which has paid dividends through the years.
Mr. Pirie, on his own farms in northern New
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Brunswick, plants about 1,500 acres of potatoes. At 150 barrels to the acre, which is what the best growers got last fall, that would be 225,000 barrels of spuds.
To his potato enterprises Mr. Pirie has added a starch factory and dehydration plant at Grand Falls. All winter the dehydration plant packed potatoes for the forces overseas. This process puts 150 pounds of fresh potatoes into a 15-pound tin.
Mr. Pirie’s dehydration plant is one of two on the Canadian side of the potato belt. The other, at Hartland, is owned by H. H. Hatfield, M.P. There are several in Alaine.
The dehydration process now used looks fairly simple. The potatoes are graded by hand as they pass over belts, peeled by machinery, cut—as though for French frying—by machinery, cooked enough to inactivate the enzymes and prevent deterioration, then run, mechanically, through a long drying tunnel. They emerge as small chips, feather-light but as hard as rock. The waste from dehydration, peelings, liquid and the culls rejected by the graders goes to the starch vats and eventually becomes starch and potato flour. Most of the potato starch used on this continent used to be imported from Europe. Starch manufacturers in New Brunswick and Alaine are confident it never will be again—Jhey believe that they can hold the markets they have gained in the last four years.
The victory gardener, hopefully sowing a few pounds of spuds in a vacant lot, gets along with a spade, a hoe and a sprinkling can. In a commercial potato operation even the smallest grower needs a minimum of $1,200 worth of specialized equipment — planters, cultivators, horse hoes, sprayers. Some growers have tens of thousands of dollars tied up in potato machinery.
Mr. Pirie, for instance, has eight complete machinery units, each including everything from planters to tractordrawn diggers. Watching his men in action from a distance, you might easily mistake them for a mechanized division on manoeuvres.
Taking No Chances
Everybody in the potato belt wonders about the future. During the last war there was just such a demand for potatoes as there is today and money flowed freely. Potato farmers bought grand pianos and custom-built automobiles—and had them shipped by express. They thought the boom had come to stay and sober farmers spent like drunken sailors. Then, suddenly, they woke up and found that the bottom had dropped out of the market and that they were broke.
They are taking no chances this time —they are salting their cash away. Just the same they are hoping, with some reason, that there will never come again a period in which potatoes rot in the fields for lack of buyers. One thing that gives them confidence is the development of chemurgy, which has opened up industrial uses for the spud in plastics, in alcohol, in other products. Potato men like H. H. Hatfield say the day has arrived when half the potatoes grown in the potato belt should be for food and the other half—in normal times—for industrial purposes. This would provide profitable avenues for disposing of culls and at the same time prevent the supply of table tubers from exceeding the demand.
Growers are also looking for larger export markets, particularly for seed. But they aren’t banking on everlasting prosperity, because they know that potatoes, the world’s most important vegetable, are farming’s biggest gamble.
“What other crop,” they ask, “can make you so much dough so quickly? And what other crop can lose you so much dough so quickly? You just have to take a chance in this game, that’s all.”