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June 7-13, 2006

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In the Eye of the Potato

True confessions of a would-be spud baron

By James Knight

Like a lot of experimentation, it all started in college. While others dabbled in binge drinking or flirted with identity politics, my housemates and I tried gardening. One day, we were hanging around the house and somebody said, "Hey, let's start a backyard garden." We all pitched in for a day, clearing landscape rocks, digging, planting a few rows of carrots. We watered it now and then, and, because we were in college, we called it the Housemates' Socialist Garden.

But I couldn't stop. I lost interest in my studies. I dug up the driveway and planted corn. I sent away for seed catalogues and brought 50-pound bags of compost home on my bicycle. My housemates started calling it the One-Man Socialist Garden. In my notebooks, I feverishly extrapolated backyard gardening to political theory. Shouldn't we grow vegetables instead of lawns? Could a society of citizen-farmers replace nonproductive occupations like, say, telemarketing? My thinking veered from Waldenesque self-sufficiency toward Maoist labor camps.

After college, like many of my recession-era compatriots in the '90s, I had the foresight to escape California for a state with an even more depressed economy. This new state's relative lack of migrant laborers, however, enabled me to be employed in agricultural enterprises such as weeding blueberry fields and inspecting corn.

Again, I dug up the lawn next to my apartment and planted squash, leeks, tomatoes, peppers and, as an afterthought, potatoes. I settled into a regular job, one that began at 1pm. Every morning, I could walk downstairs, reach into the earth mound and pull out fresh new spuds to fry up for breakfast.

I became enchanted with the potato.

When my parents visited my adopted city in order to review my path to success, I informed them that I planned to move home to start an organic farm. A look of disbelief and pity came over my father's face as he stared into the middle distance. But I had it all worked out on paper.

The business plan was simple. I'd sell direct, for $1 a pound at markets, maybe 50 cents to stores--a bargain in the gourmet tuber market but a heckuva price for potatoes. Within a few years, with one acre or more, I could be taking in $50,000. Another appealing aspect of the plan was (if any real farmers are reading this, they might not want to be drinking or eating for this next part) that the growing season would be six months, so I'd have half of the year free to travel around the world! It turns out that there are some North Bay growers for whom this true, but honey, they're not growing potatoes.

I found a two-acre property in Sebastopol, where I sublet a room from a woman who was enthusiastic about my project. She already had the semblance of a free-range-chicken operation going. I staked my claim to a good, flat area that had been a volleyball court, and began ordering seeds.

Most gardeners will admit to the prurient pleasures of poring over seed catalogues. I sought out rarer and more specialized catalogues, those featuring varieties that sound like a roster of narcotics: Black Russian, White Snowball. I studied alternative gardening books that championed the "French method" and the technique of "double digging."

I made a decision. I would specialize in purple produce. Purple potatoes, tomatillos, artichokes. My assumption was this: Because an ordinary product, like basil, appears with a twist--purple, with ruffles--it would be as irresistible to consumers as it was to me. Squinting into the sunrise on that new day on the organic frontier, I saw my parachute's color, and it was purple.

A few friends can be easily conned into digging a garden in the back yard for half a day before taking a beer break. But preparing even a quarter acre of land takes a lot of work--especially when employing the French method. And when you're getting up at 10 or 11 in the morning, who has the time? I rented a rototiller. This is one of those garden machines that is supposed to start after it has been filled with gasoline and the pull is pulled. What is not so clear is the number of kicks and how much profanity to employ before it starts up. And once it did, it sort of skidded across the ground instead of smoothly churning the earth, flicking pieces of grass and dirt around, dragging me along behind it. After wasting my toe on it, I called in for heavy armor support: a guy with a tractor.

Meanwhile, I did a little research with a local organic farmer who shipped his organic baby greens via FedEx to New York City. Gesturing to fields that stretched to the waters of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, he said that, possibly, I could lease an acre and grow all the potatoes that I wanted. We talked about the tractor-mounted, potato-harvesting implements that are available. My heart leapt.

The season was turning. The fog spread its fingers before the morning sun and vanished. The earth warmed. The seed packets rattled like maracas to the gathering tempo of spring. I built a greenhouse out of plastic tarps and old windows from the dump. Helicopters passed overhead, and I imagined them zooming in on my ramshackle setup. Come and get me, coppers, I challenged--they're tomato plants! But my enemies didn't drop down from the sky. They came from under the ground.

My careful notes from the era document that for Valentine's Day, I got myself a winged hoe for weeding the garlic patch (heirloom purple Ukrainian, etc.). But a thinning of a different kind had already begun. First, a few stalks went missing. Then a row. Soon, half the plot was zapped--gone. Since gardening wisdom often recommends planting garlic to repel gophers, I was confused. I consulted the oracles, but not having ever seen Caddyshack, I mistakenly went in full-bore after them. My first plan was the Moat Plan: I'd dig a ditch around the plot, and woe be unto them that cross it with a gopher-hunting cat on the premises.

Didn't work.

Tried flooding. Didn't work.

I'd heard some talk of New Age gardening. When there is a pest problem in the garden, one consults that pest's "deva." One might seek to commune with the deva of the aphids, for instance, as they swarm over the broccoli. (Or do you skip the aphids and appeal directly to their ant overlords?) Reverently, this approach prescribes working out a sort of Munich Agreement, in which the bugs get to invade a few designated plants, leaving the rest in peace.

Of course, when I finally sighted the gopher heading back from a raid at dusk, I happened to have a shovel in my hand. I know that it just confirms unpleasant stereotypes to sketch the spectacle of a long-haired vegetarian going at a small, furry mammal with a shovel. But there it was. Once in his hole, the gopher had the advantage of trajectory, velocity and depth, and easily escaped my wild jabbing. No doubt, as he distributed the pungent haul to a nest of future farmwreckers, the incident was soon forgotten.

In the end, the gophers left me enough to make a few loosely braided garlic wreaths. I planted my potatoes with the greatest apprehension.

As it turned out, my next enemy was sublimely confounding. Instead of snatching plants one by one, he simply took the whole ground out from under me. In April, the owner put the property up for sale. I had a greenhouse full of seedlings opening their second leaves to the sun and two patches of potatoes peeping out of their hills. My notes from the period read, "I picked the wrong year to be an optimist."

Various schemes were put out. Would my sublet-lord purchase the house? Would it take the rest of the season to sell? The house sold in a month. I gave away the seedlings and dismantled the greenhouse. The potatoes, however, were not going anywhere. Historically, this was one of the chief advantages of the potato. When invading armies plundered the countryside, they slaughtered livestock and burnt crops both coming and going, but potatoes couldn't be burnt to the ground. They were already in it. There would be no scorched earth for the invaders--I mean purchasers.

On the eve of escrow, we moved every last thing out and I found a room in the City. I turned off the irrigation for the last time. The new owners moved in, and I waited. I watched. I crept back on late afternoons, turning off the engine of my car as I rolled in the driveway with maximum stealth. I dug into the dry earth, and there they were, concealed in hills like dusty treasure chests that magically multiply their jewels. The Yellow Banana, the knobby Ruby Crescent, the delicate purple-skinned Caribe, the rosy-fleshed Red Rose. Fluffy mashers, waxy boilers, tasty fryers. Despite the vagaries of nature and real estate, the potato abides.

An organic farmer with the CSA program offered to buy my crop at a price that was either market value or plain kindness. When my total receipts came in, considering a cash outlay for supplies and seeds, I had either made a profit of $10 or taken a loss of $200, depending on how you cook the books. But hadn't I really gained something much more valuable, like a priceless instruction in perseverance, or maybe a connection with the land?


These days, I plunk a pile of frozen mashed potato disks from Trader Joe's in the microwave. I might look out my kitchen window at the fog rolling in over the parking garages of the gray city. I think of those hills out there where the sun is setting, and I wonder if any tubers might have survived and carried on for a few generations in the sandy soil. One foot down, the wrinkled eye of a Yellow Finn searches blindly into darkness for its farmer. If the potato still calls out to me, I do not listen.

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