by Stephen Leslie with technical assistance provided by Kerry Gawalt, both of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, VT.
This is the account of how one farm put more horse power into the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of its potato crop. Ever since we began farming on our own in 1994 one of our principle aims has been the conversion of our farm operation to live horse power wherever feasible. This has meant replacing mechanized tools such as tractors and rototillers and figuring out how to reduce human labor as we expanded upon the labor capacity of our work horses. The first year that we graduated from being apprentices to managing our own market garden we employed two Haflinger horses to the best of our greenhorn ability. On a 1/2 acre plot of potatoes the Haflingers helped to prepare the ground for planting by pulling a spike tooth harrow, and later they each took turns pulling a single horse drawn middle buster-type implement to hill the crop. This relative early success utilizing horse power inspired us on a quest to achieve 100% horse and human power to manage our market garden. This proved to be a long road with many exhilarating leaps forward and some daunting set-backs. The evolution of our potato growing method (still a work in progress) is a case in point.
The potato is a preeminent member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae). The only edible portion of the plant is the starchy, nutritious tuber. The potato was first cultivated in the Andes region some 7,000-10,000 years ago where it became a staple food of the Incan Empire. It is now an essential staple food across the Americas, Europe, and increasingly in Asia, with nearly 1/3 of the world’s annual crop being grown in China and India. The leaves, shoots, flowers, and berries of the potato plant contain noxious alkaloids that can cause severe poisoning and even death when consumed in sufficient quantities—but as long as the tubers are not exposed to direct sunlight (greening) they contain insignificant amounts of these toxins. In the Andes hundreds of regional varieties were developed. When the potato was brought to Europe a relatively limited number of cultivars were introduced. The potato quickly became an important crop and was partially responsible for the accelerated population boom that occurred in Europe between 1700-1900 (although it may not be ideal, a combined diet of potatoes and cow’s milk contains enough protein, starches, vitamins and minerals to sustain a healthy human). However, the limited number of varieties initially introduced left the crop vulnerable to disease, particularly fungi such as the late blight that was the ostensible cause of the horrific famine years in Ireland beginning with a near complete crop failure in 1845.(1)
Planting Potatoes with a Single Horse Plow
Most, if not all, commercial growers buy in seed potatoes to grow their crop. Seed potatoes have been cultured to insure your crop will be disease free (and more resistant to disease) at the outset. In other parts of the world farmers still save their own seed potatoes, with the advantage of developing regionally adapted varieties. Home gardeners and some commercial growers cut their seeds into pieces (with two or three “eyes”—sprouts—per piece) and cure them spread on tarps or a barn floor for 24 hours prior to planting. We have found it economical and time-efficient to plant uncut potatoes. We feel the plants get off to a better start with the extra energy boost of a whole seed. Within our annual garden rotation potatoes follow onions. The onions are usually harvested by mid-late August which gives us plenty of time to establish a catch crop of oats or rye in what will become the potato ground. In the spring we will give this ground a moderately deep plowing to make the soil friable for spuds and then after discing we spread it with finished compost at a rate of about 9-10 tons/acre (in actuality for this season the field was spread at this rate in both the fall and the spring for a total of 18-20 tons/acre—we applied at this rate because we had so much rain—9” from Hurricane Irene in a 24 hour period on August 29th, followed by a very wet fall—that we were concerned about excessive nutrient leaching in our highly porous soils). Next, the field was disced again, harrowed with a spring tooth, and smoothed with a flex harrow.
For moderately deep plowing we hitch the Fjords to a 14” Pioneer walking plow. For the discing we use a 6’ single action disc pulled behind a forecart, and for harrowing we also pull a single 3’ spring tooth section and a 5’ flex harrow behind the cart. For delivering the compost we are using a John Deere “H” series single axle spreader (again, hitched to the forecart) which has an approximate 60 bushel capacity.
At this point the plot is ready to be marked out with rows. Although in general our row crops are planted at 32” we plant the potatoes on 36” to account for the wheel base of our digger. The basic recommendation for spacing for potatoes is 18” between rows and 18” between plants in the row. On 36” row spacing we reduce the space between plants in row to one foot. We used to mark out the rows by hand—using a Gallagher reel and polywire to create a guide for a first straight row followed by a human pulled three-tined marker to trace out the rows. This method insured uniform rows but was quite human labor-intensive, taking one person at least one hour to accomplish. This year we came up with a system for marking out the rows with the horses by using a tool bar mounted on a manual three-point hitch adapter on the forecart. The tool bar is set up with two shanks as markers and a third “boom arm” out to the side of the near-horse in order to trace a mark for the off-horse to follow for marking out successive rows. With this method the rows in a 1/4 acre section can be marked out with the team in about 1/2 hour. Often times in the spring during the big push to get the crops seeded or transplanted it is practical to mark out two or more sections at once, greatly enhancing the efficiency of the horse drawn marker.
Once the rows are marked the next step is to create planting furrows. About eighteen years ago we acquired a vintage single horse plow with a 10” bottom that was just the right size for our smaller draft horses. It is stamped as a Hillsdale no. 19 from a foundry that once existed in Columbia County, New York. For plowing smaller acreage the single horse drawn plow still presents a viable option. The single plow can also find utility on the farm for working up ground in tight spaces such as inside a hoophouse, or close to its outside walls, and alongside fence lines, perennial plantings, etc. A heavy draft horse can pull a 12” bottom plow and handle the work of a small to mid-size market garden (1-5 acres). The majority of plows specifically designed for the single horse are in the 8”-10” bottom range. The beam of the plow is centered slightly more over the share than in a team plow (on many single plows this is an adjustable factor that will affect furrow width). The single horse will walk on the unplowed ground directly ahead of the plow. Our oldest mare works on both the single horse and team walking plow. There is a bit of irony involved in training a horse that is used to walking in the furrow to step out and walk ahead of the plow, but a good work horse will have the mental agility to deal with the switch. I always keep in the back of my mind that if one of our horses should be temporarily side-lined with lameness or illness, I could still get out and do some plowing with this single horse plow, rather than having to resort to the tractor.