Why would you grow potatoes?

“I’ve never seen anyone grow potatoes before, I just can’t figure out why you would.  They are so cheap at the store!”  – Mr. Trivia, (he says this to me about twice a week.)

There is no explaining to Mr. Trivia why I do what I do.  I’m his favorite crazy person as he is mine.  He’s one of the better neighbors I’ve ever had and entertainment wise he has to be the best.  He knows EVERYTHING about St. Louis history.  I love talking to him, but that has nothing to do with why there are 40 lbs of potatoes planted in his yard.

It occurred to me though that I should consider why I grow them.  There are a lot of options as to why.  Is it entertainment?  nutritional?  flavor?  environmental?  Why?

Entertainment wise, I LOVE IT!  Potato plants are somewhat impressive and pretty.  The flowers vary in color.  The plants put on an impressive show of foliage.  If you straw them they provide even more impact to the viewer.  They are easy to grow.  If you need something that won’t fail to encourage you, throw some on the ground.  They will grow and make you feel good about your green thumb.  Potato bugs are somewhat fascinating, don’t really do much damage, and look like fleas.

Potatoes are high in potassium, vitamin C, and B6.  The starch in potatoes is resistant to digestion and functions similarly to fiber in your intestines.  Organically grown vegetables have a higher nutritional content than vegetables from industrial agriculture.

All the micronutrients found in these roots have to be processed from the surrounding soil.  If the soil is low in Iron, Niacin, Thiamin, or Riboflavin, the gardener may not necessarily recognize that while growing.  The organic farmer will be rotating crops and adding soil amendments that will replace these nutrients and any hidden deficiencies have a better chance of being corrected.   The industrial farmer will apply the big three Potassium, Phosphorus, and Nitrogen.  If he is growing on soil that has had the same crop over and over and over again, those others will naturally be depleted and provide a potato that isn’t a healthy.  As a potato sits in storage it also looses nutrients.  If I grow a potato, I can dig it out of the ground as a living thing and eat it.  If I buy a potato, it has been in transit or sitting on a shelf and has had that time to loose nutrients.  Vitamin C is especially easy to degrade.

I love food.  I love to cook food, grow food, and eat food.  I love to touch it, chop it, process it.  I especially love to taste it.  My brother at Chism Heritage Farm grows pasture raised organic chicken.  It is succulent and that can’t even begin to describe the difference between that product and a similar product at the grocery store.  Recently, my husband brought me some fried chicken from the grocery.  I took a breast and couldn’t even finish it, it was so bland.  The difference wasn’t the way it was cooked, it was the meat itself.  The same thing happens with fruits and vegetables.  No one disputes the difference between a home grown tomato and a store tomato, why wouldn’t it apply to potatoes as well?  They are even in the same family of plants.  Home grown potatoes are just different.  Better.

Roots absorb nutrients by diffusion, mass flow, root interception, and foliar absorption.  Diffusion in particular is when a high concentration of nutrient flows across the membrane of the skin of the root because there is a lower concentration of that element inside.  Nature wants to naturally balance it out.  If there is a poisonous chemical in the soil, it would be a natural process for it to cross that membrane.  Since potatoes are roots, it will accumulate in the potato.  There are many studies showing abnormal concentrations of cadmium and other toxins in roots growing in polluted fields.  This unsettles me and I would like to know where those roots are growing so I have some expectation of what might be in my food.

I live by the Mississippi River which is more and more polluted all the time.  I would not like to contribute to that.  I drink that water.  King Corn + Big River Special Edition DVD SET goes into detail on what is going into that water already from industrial agriculture.  I’m uncomfortable with the concept that my saving money on potatoes might in some way pollute someone else’s or my own water.  It’s too easy to grow potatoes for that to be worth a few pennies.

More than half of the world’s potato fields are grown with Russet Burbank potatoes.  A contributing factor of this is McDonald’s, but people also buy them because they like them and the taste is familiar.  This effectively sets us up for problems associated with monoculture.  People remember the Irish potato famine, but now believe that technology will save us from that and it will never happen here.  Not so.  Technology may move fast enough to make a dent, but chances are that what will happen is a deluge of chemicals on our fields resulting in pollution and not necessarily saving the crop.  It all depends upon what starts killing the potatoes.  Why take the risk?  The easy solution is to grow other varieties and keep some genetic diversity in our seed stock.  If we grow lots of varieties of potatoes, we have lots of variety of flavor as well.  I’m constantly amazed that in a society that seemingly values gourmet food and cooking so much that there are whole channels dedicated to it on television, there isn’t a demand for more variety.  In the Seed Savers 2008 year book, there are 15 pages of potato varieties.  Each page has apx. 40 varieties.  That would make about 600 varieties available through them alone.  Why does the world have half of all potatoes in one variety???  That’s just crazy to me.  Half the world isn’t the same growing conditions.  Out of those 600 potatoes, there are some that are better tasting and better suited to almost everywhere!  Now I don’t have a good variety planted this year.  Before I got some of the more obscure ones, I went with some cheap ones from Rural King to get my legs underneath me for growing them.  I don’t want to waste a limited supply of seed potatoes by failing to grow them.  I have my confidence now and hope that my financial situation will improve enough for me to pick up seed potato for next year from Seed Savers.  I can’t wait to start trying different varieties and flavors!

So, my neighbor can’t understand why I’m doing what I’m doing because cost is the overriding factor in his brain.  Potatoes are cheap, but they are also ridiculously cheap to grow.  50 lbs of potatoes was $12 and three bales of straw was $9.  If I only get 70lbs of potatoes out they are $0.30 a pound.  If I get out the high end possible (which won’t happen) of 400 pounds, they are $0.05 per pound.   I’ve spent a whole hour or so working on them.  They don’t need weeded because of the straw.  They will taste amazing.  I can get them as baby potatoes or big potatoes.  All in all I think I end up a winner on cost.  When you add in all my other reasons, I really feel ahead and I’ve had some really nice relaxing entertainment while doing it.

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3 responses to “Why would you grow potatoes?

  1. Low petroleum cost too…fewer food miles.

    Plus, a gardner typically adds compost and manures to the potato bed before planting and the potatoes will benefit from the increased nutrient availability. This leaves the bed in great shape for the next plant in the rotation like a fall crop of onions. This rotation across the garden beds keeps things hopping fertility-wise.

    I need to manage my rotations better to make sure my nightshades all rotate together. The barn garden has tomatoes now where potatoes will be next year. Not ideal.

  2. I’m growing potatoes again for the first time in about a decade, and I’m looking forward to the day I can sneak a few of the babies to boil up with some mint.

  3. Wonderful commentary! Too bad you can’t explain all that to your neighbor!

    Found your blog through the Cherokee Street International Farmers’ Market Facebook page. We’ll be there selling produce, too- looking forward to meeting you!

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