As first-generation farmers, we gathered our knowledge by reading, through trial and error, from mentors and sometimes by absorbing what seems like common wisdom from forgotten sources.
One of those many lessons was a finger-wagging tidbit that I hear in my mind saying, “A commercial farmer would never save potatoes for seed because there could be a potato disease. Buy new seed each year.”
Potato seed are actually just old potatoes that have started to sprout. To prepare them for planting, you just cut them up with a sprout or two on each piece and let them heal for a day or two before planting. Normally, we purchase these potato seeds from a supplier that can promise they are free of disease and stored in optimal conditions.
Last year was our first year farming in Vermont. We had new land, a new tractor and enough water to irrigate. So, of course, we planted and planted and planted. We wound up with lots of produce and precious few contacts for selling it all. We donated to food banks, sold as much as we could and wound up with a lot of potatoes in crates in the cooler.
We enjoyed our potatoes from their July and August harvest, all the way until early March, when there were too many soft spots and sprouts to cut away. Even in the dark, their little biological clocks told them to grow. But the ground in Vermont was still frozen solid, and it seemed they would never make it in the ground in time.
So we left them alone as we busied ourselves with spring projects. There was a new high tunnel to build and lots of ground to prep. It was a cold and wet spring, and many weeks went by before we could think about getting those potatoes planted.
Meanwhile, their shoots grew long, leggy and hopeful in the cooler. They formed little spider-like roots. And they waited, slowly softening and simply refusing to rot. When I looked at those potatoes growing in the dark, I felt like my family and I were not alone with this farm. Biology was on our side, in the form of these determined little potatoes.
Once spring came for real, I still ran out to buy some back-up potato seed from an actual seed supplier. But I could not turn my back on all of those hopeful sprouts in our cooler.
So just like when we became farmers in the first place, we took a risk, ignored conventional wisdom and planted those sweet little potatoes right back in the ground they came from (well, a different patch of ground for rotation). It felt so great to untangle those long sprouts and put them in the ground. Suddenly there were no more unsold potatoes hanging about.
And guess what? They grew, and they grew faster than the bed of purchased seed. As of late July, they are making new potatoes! Adirondack blues, beautiful reds, creamy yellows. They are already for sale in a food co-op and have been snapped up at market.
These sweet little jewel colored potatoes cheer me on for bucking conventional wisdom and not just chancing a planting with imperfectly stored seed, but taking the far bigger risk of becoming a farmer in the first place.