In lieu of wearing tacky green shamrocks and drinking too much Guiness today, we planted potatoes. I was pretty determined to make it happen, actually. Yesterday Ted passed off a long work list for the next week while he's on vacation, and I have free reign to plan and play each day as I see fit. Sowing our first round of potatoes in the greenhouse was already overdue, so today seemed like the day to plug in some spuds.
I made trenches with the middle buster on the tractor first thing this morning, and volunteers put our seed potatoes in crates to make them easier to carry among the beds and pathways. A fraternity group came to volunteer in the morning, and they got pretty deep in gleaning the last of our overwintered cabbage and bolting collards and kale, so I gave up on having them plant potatoes. At the last minute though, I pulled two of them aside to at least help me lay out the seeds (I figured I could pop them in the ground later this afternoon-- it goes quick with one foot spacing between plants), and before I knew it we had them all in the ground!
It seemed like a festive gesture, to plant potatoes on Saint Patrick's Day. It was fun and simple, and seemed like a good way to tie agriculture in to the holiday for the fraternity guys. I watered them in, closed up the ends of the greenhouse to keep them warm, and moved on to all the dozen other things on my to-do list.
Later this evening, I started to wonder more about this holiday, the history of the Irish, and how strange it is that a crop from South America became a staple for a northern isle. I'd never thought much about what the Irish call the "Great Famine," but after reading more about it I realize how much it's fundamentally shaped their society and ours. A million people emigrated from Ireland in the 1840s, and a million more starved to death. Superficially, it seems like a reminder to diversify agriculture and diet-- it's a precarious situation to rely heavily on just one staple food, because one disease or pest (a blight, in this case) can wipe out a whole community's sustenance. At a closer look though, it was a result not just of a blight, but of the unequal distribution of power and resources in Ireland in the mid 19th century. Irish Catholics were prohibited from owning land by the British government, and as poor tenant farmers could only sustain their families by growing calorie-rich potatoes and little else. Combined with a number of other policies that made other foods inaccessible, they were extremely vulnerable when potato yields started to crash.
We like to think that famines like that are a thing of the past in the "developed" world, but I see so many parallels to our current food system: monocultures of corn and soy that are used in the majority of food products on the market, the cheapest and most accessible foods being low in nutritional value, and the poor caught on a treadmill where they can't make enough money to buy the foods they want and need. Only a couple cards need to fall to make the whole stack crash.
In that light, planting potatoes today feels triumphant. They're just one piece of this huge patchwork puzzle of nutritious foods we're growing. We'll give much of the crop away for free to families in need. We'll teach kids how to plant them in the fields, and show our youth farmers how to hill them up to increase production. A disease will inevitably descend on them in the summer, but of many varieties we grow, some will resist and continue to produce. And even if the yield is small, it will feel miraculous in light of how vulnerable this whole experiment we call agriculture can be.