A brief explanation here from Farmer Steve. Sharon Funderburk is the owner of Beartrack Farms just outside of Turkey which itself is just outside of Clinton, N.C. Sharon was one of our early mentors and is well known in the industry. I remember her first words of advice to me was to “slow down and take time to do soil building before you start,” and she was right – particularly at our River Bluffs location. Well, I knew Sharon consulted for large farm operations and is an exceptional produce and livestock farmer with a no-nonsense attitude when you are slowing her down, but, what I didn’t know is that she is an amazing writer. She doesn’t have a website, for no other reason than she’s too busy to deal with it, but her Facebook posts should be made into a book. I pride myself on being a decent writer. I can spell. I know a lot about diction and grammar, and, occasionally, my Facebook and blog posts are readable. Sharon writes five perfect paragraphs here with a style and readability I could never match, ever. —– Steve
What’s a potato worth anyhow? The standard answer is whatever you can sell it for. But prices are a contentious point for the local and/or organic small farmer. I’ve had many a prospective customer laugh out loud at the price of my eggs, or wonder how I can think so much of my produce to ask that for it. Even chefs, who famously search for the rare, the local, the small batch produced, have told me with a straight face and no trace of irony that they can buy eggs by the flat at Costco for less than mine. Organic ones, even. Well, yes. And the WHOLE rotisserie chicken for under five dollars, while mine are $5/pound. Clearly, I’m making a fortune. Hmmmm …
Leaving aside Costco and its vertically integrated Mid-Western chicken factories (a story for another day), let’s just think potatoes for a minute. Small potatoes at that. I bought 50 pounds this spring and planted them in a new but seemingly good bed. Lots of mulch, no irrigation, a pioneer crop in a permaculture market garden. Meaning you start each new bed with potatoes and then move to other crops as the beds mature. They cost about $2 a pound, should have yielded about 250 pounds in this new bed, sell for $3 a pound, clear $550 on them. Minus labor. Which is a very variable minus. The plants looked great, set loads of tiny potato beginnings. Then it stopped raining for five weeks and the potato beetles moved in. Now each little red marble is worth about $10 a piece and I’m still going to lose money.
I’m not a great accountant, but I am a decent production agriculturist. I wanted to know where all those beetles came from in the blasting heat. There’s not another potato patch within two miles of the farm. The answer was out by the chicken coops in the sandy hell the farm turned into for a short season of no rain and record breaking temperatures. Horse nettle. The flowers look just like potato flowers. Same family, covered in thorns, makes little striped tomato looking fruits the size of a marble that turn yellow when they are ripe. Beloved host plant of Colorado Potato Beetles. The adult beetles are orange and black striped, a color combination that often signals to predators that the bug tastes bad. Chickens won’t touch them. Monarch butterflies use this warning system, they make a bad taste for themselves out of plants in the milkweed family. Same orange and black signal. Colorado potato beetles can make their potions out of any plant in the potato family: potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, horse nettle. There sat my little row of spuds in a 60 acre dust bowl of horse nettle. You don’t have to be any kind of accountant at all to see bad odds written all over that.
So what about this horse nettle anyhow? What’s it doing flourishing in hot sand with no rain and a big big bug problem? It has adapted to life on an ancient sand dune by having a tap root about 3 feet long, gray leaves covered with spines, and an insecticidal package that only fails for a couple of potato family specialists. Chemical herbicides don’t bother it much, it just regenerates from that mile long root system and tillage scatters root sections around, effectively propagating instead of eliminating them. Because of its long roots down into cooler moister soil it can withstand the heat while shallow rooted grasses wither away. Soils made of sand, old beaches of an ocean a million years removed, are just like beaches along the current coastline. No organic matter to speak of, simple mineral composition of silicon dioxide, and little water carrying capacity. A sieve in other words. And a hot one, with neither organic matter nor complex mineral structures to hold water, temperatures in this soil can soar just like the deep sand zone between the parking lot and the high tide line. So hot that it can burn the feet of anyone who forgets their flip flops; so hot that only a very few plants, perfectly adapted, can endure that fierce environment. Here in the coastal plain of NC, successful perennial field weeds have certain characteristics in common: deep tap roots, small leaves with hairy or prickly coverings, astronomical seed production, complex relationships with specific insect families. Horse nettle is their queen.
What to do about the potatoes? This farm, as you may have noticed, plays a long game and the potatoes of 2019 went down as a learning experience about the whole farm ecosystem. I could have sprayed them with an organically approved insecticide. But those are not species specific, and just up the way is the dill patch, full of swallowtails. Or the fritillaries that feed on the field pansies alongside each bed. Even the broccoli hosted its own hatch of cabbage whites just before harvest. And there’s a literal million others, ugly or nondescript, without the star power of butterflies, that would have been affected. So I don’t spray. This fall I can cover the broccoli with row cover to protect it, I can do the same for the potatoes next spring. And for the rest of the farm, a prescription to restore soil health that takes some time but will reduce the horse nettle eventually. Not because soil health is bad for horse nettle but because it’s good for other competing plants which will replace the nettle under different conditions. Then less beetle pressure, then more potatoes with less labor.
What’s a potato worth anyhow? Turns out it’s just a matter of time.