by Stephen Leslie with technical assistance provided by Kerry Gawalt, both of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, VT.
On our farm all the crops in our 4 acre market garden are planted and cultivated on the flat (no bed or ridge forming). This simplified approach allows us to cultivate crops with very few changes necessary to the set-up of attachments on the riding cultivator. This kind of streamlining is important because we are a diversified farm, managing intensively grazed dairy cows and extensive hay land, so the labor pool can sometimes get spread pretty thin. We have a second riding cultivator that is set-up for hilling corn, leeks, and potatoes. We commit a 1/4 acre section to potatoes each year (this year 18 rows in a plot measuring roughly 60’ x 180’). In the past we found that a potato section of this size can be very effectively hilled with a single-horse drawn hiller (variously known as a middle-buster or potato plow). More recently we shifted to using disc hiller attachments on the riding cultivator. The advantage with this set up is that the attachments can be set at successively wider spacing for a second and even third hilling. Our potatoes are planted on a 36” row spacing to accommodate our horse drawn potato digger. The cultivator that we use for hilling the potatoes is set up with a 48” wheel base which gives us an ample comfort zone to work in by allowing a 24” margin on either side of the row of potatoes upon which to set up the gangs of the cultivator with discs, shovels, and sweeps. At the end of Part One we had completed our first disc hilling with the riding cultivator. This was followed up by two more successive hillngs at 7-10 day intervals. For the 2nd and 3rd hilling we adjusted the shanks of the disc hiller attachments from the upfront and innermost position on the gangs to the further back middle position (from 24” to 32”) to accommodate the burgeoning foliage and to insure that the discs were not cutting into the root zone.
A week or so after the final hilling a weed bloom sprouted in the trough between rows. We thought the riding cultivator might be too aggressive and undo the sides of the hills, so we went through the patch with the single horse walk behind cultivator set to its narrowest width (about 15”). This tool did a good job of cultivating the trough without disturbing the hills or “pruning” the root zone of the spuds. At this point we had done all we could to create optimal growing conditions for the potatoes. Now it was up to the vicissitudes of weather to determine the success of our harvest.
It is pretty remarkable to consider that even as nutritionally concentrated a food staple as the potato is it is about 90% water. Typical of most vegetable crops, potatoes require about 1” of rain (or supplemental irrigation) per week to maintain optimal growth. Ideally this water will be applied incrementally rather than in one (potentially soil eroding) blast as in a 1” per hour thunder shower. With our limited irrigation capacity we struggle to keep our market garden adequately watered in a dry year. Such was the case this season, by mid-July we were in the throes of a mini-drought with prospects for a good 2nd cutting of hay beginning to appear dim, pastures looking scorched, and vegetable crops limping along with just barely enough soil moisture (except for our 1/2 acre of cucurbits and night-shades on plastic with drip who were loving all the heat and sunshine).
Within the growth cycle of the potato the most critical point for insuring adequate watering is shortly after the plants flower because it is at this junction that they begin to put their energy into tuber development. This season we got lucky to catch just enough intermittent thunder showers to augment our overhead irrigation and deliver sufficient water to the spuds (unlike so many farmers who suffered under intense drought conditions). In other dry years we have brought in drip irrigation after the final cultivation. We do not have a line for every row, but instead manually lift the lines over one row to the next. The biggest factor affecting potato yields this year was higher than “normal” temperatures from the very start of the season and continuing on through the summer.
An old tool that is still commonly used for digging potatoes on many contemporary small horse powered farms is a middle buster designed to be pulled by a team. Many farm museums have fine examples of such tools for digging spuds in which the double-sided share rides behind a set of depth gauge wheels and is trailed by long tines for catching the lifted spuds and depositing them on the surface free of dirt. These types of team implements for digging potatoes were the first big innovation in horse powered potato harvesting in the mid-19th century. Prior to the horse drawn digger the limitation on how many potatoes a farmer could plant was how many the farm crew could dig by hand. The basic design of these early diggers works so well that new models of this type of digger are once again being manufactured by contemporary horse drawn equipment suppliers. As discussed in Part One, besides the walk-behind version, the middle buster attachment is often seen nowadays on a tool-carrier cart designed to be pulled by two horses and to straddle the row.