Thursday, 24 March 2011

And so the potato season begins...

Tomorrow I'll be setting/planting the first potatoes this year. I live on the Bjäre peninsula in southern Sweden, an area with ideal sand soils known for so called "new potatoes" (färskpotatis, nypotatis), i.e. early immature "primeur" potatoes. And especially known for being very early when it comes to harvest. For this, early varieties are used. They can vary over the years, with new varieties coming and old ones going. These last years, we've mostly worked with Rocket, Solist, Minerva and Swift.

It's a race to be the first one to harvest each year. Not just for the glory: the first kilos are sold very expensive to glitzy Stockholm restaurants. First man to begin the season usually get a bit of glory as well as it's always posted in the local paper. This year it happened on March 15th.

I think I might have promised someone last year to show some pics of the machine we're on. Most other potatoes are planted using automatic machines, but the primeurs are pre-cultivated and the machine can damage the sprouts (known as "eels", ålar) so instead farmers still rely on human labour. And that's where I and three others come in.

To plant them, potatoes are taken from the wooden crates and placed one by one in the cups moving on a belt in front of each worker. The potatoes fall to the ground when one ploughshare has first divided the soil and another -- under our seats -- fold the soil back over the potatoes. The tractor moves very slowly. So slow you can walk past it (it's a very dull job, keeping the tractor in a straight line and a pace that makes you fall asleep). But the cups move pretty fast for us and as a newbie it's hard to keep up with the pace.

The discs on chains that you can see on both sides of the machine are used to make a guideline in the soil for the tractor driver so he knows where to position himself (it's always a man driving where I work) for the next round. You lower the wheel on the side not planted on yet.

The field is long, about 270 m or so, but not as wide. Each row is going the length of the field because turning, especially with the big machine used for harvest, is cumbersome and time-consuming. So the longer, the better. You have to prepare the day's work by making sure you have crates in both ends of the field so you can "re-fuel" after each row. When we stand on one side of the field, we can barely see the other side (where those crates are stacked in the pic above).

It's always a bit of a gamble when to start: too early and the night frost will kill most of it, too late and you're not in for the big money as the price of primeur potatoes can drop fast. This race against time has also seen the invention of a practice everyone hates: it looks ugly, it's really really hard work to use and it cost money. The non-woven fabrics that makes the field as white as if covered with snow. They are several metres wide and the length of the fields. And we pull them out by hand. The edges are then covered with soil to keep it from blowing away. Usually some of it does that anyway. Before harvest, it all has to removed again. This time it's usually warm and sunny, which makes the labour even harder. But everyone uses it because they don't want to be left behind, harvesting weeks after the others have already begun...

My sis have a friend that's so used to always eating a proper lunch that she couldn't fathom that we don't eat anything but sandwiches when we work. Not a working class kid that one. Anyway, we eat outdoors or in the shed you see in the background. On warm sunny days it's heaven to eat breakfast and lunch out in the open. Birds singing and you can smell the sea, which is just a stone's trow away. When it's cold and damp it's not as much fun. But the rest of the time, sitting there without a worry I don't envy people that get much better paycheck but are stuck in office buildings all day.

There's a lot of details I could mention. Like how we have to bring a lot of crates, even on the tractor itself and how we constantly stop to move crates so we can reach them. Or how the cogs that moves the cups have to be changed depending on the size of potatoes used as it determines the distance between them when they drop into the soil. But that's probably bore you. (If you're not already bored by this text...)

There's a lot of work involved in potato cultivation, not just during the planting. The fields have to be prepared, which includes weeding, plowing, harrowing, rolling and fertilizing. We can't set the potatoes if it's too wet as the machine gets stuck and some weathers -- like an April snow storm -- are just to tough to work in for us sitting there on the machine, exposed to the winds and downpour. Then there's the covering of the fields, which is done after a first spray with pesticides. During the growth the cover may have to be removed if the potatoes grows to fast due to warm weather. Dry weather means the fields have to be irrigated. Before harvest, a substance that kills the foliage is sprayed on. Then harvest can begin. That's usually sometime in May or June depending on the weather.

If you want to read a bit more about the process of cultivation, check out the Wikipedia article. They don't mention what is probably the worst part of the job, though. It's called harpning in Swedish and is done during winter. A couple of workers have to work indoors with the potatoes dusty from the dried soil. Kilo after kilo have to be sorted into different groups depending on size (and variety, can't mix varieties) and distributed into crates. Second worst part is all the rotting potatoes you will put your fingers into both during planting and harvest. They stink like hell. And the smell gets stuck in you gloves and clothes. On a warm summer's day it's nauseating.

All these photos where taken on April 6th last year.

 Well, I better get to bed soon. Work begins at 7:30 tomorrow. Which is early for setting, but late compared to harvest when we've begun as early as before 6:00 some days.

Anything you still wonder about? Just ask and I'll do my best to explain the wonders of potato cultivation. ;)


  1. I wasn't bored at all! I'm always curious and I learned lots. That white sheeting? I assume it protects the seedlings but do the plants grow through it. Pearl

  2. I'm glad to hear I'm not boring everyone. :) You know, one day we had a guy from Stockholm working with us -- he's the fiancé of the farmer's daughter -- and he exclaimed amazed that it was like being in one of those shows on Discovery where they show how stuff is made.

    Growing up in the countryside, agriculture has been such a matte-of-fact part of life it was hard to understand how it could amaze anyone. But on the other hand, I'm amazed by things other people see as nothing of particular interests. Still, my sis and I didn't know what to say when he made that remark.

    You asked about the sheeting (called fiberweb in english according to the label, I noted yesterday). No, the plants grows underneath the fiberweb the whole time. It stretches enough for the haulm to grow, pushing it upwards. So about a week before harvest, when we remove these 16x270 m sheets, they've been lifted up to knee height -- or sometimes a bit more -- by the potato plants. But along the sides, where the sheeting is held in place by heaps of soil and it is fastened to the ground, weed grows through it. Which makes the fiberweb somewhat difficult to remove in places.

  3. How interesting! I guess the fiberweb must let in light and rain. Thanks for taking the time to satisfy my curiosity.

  4. I am so interested in potato growing! I just grow them in my own garden, but I'm so nuts about learning to grow them well, that I'm thinking about how many beds I'm going to fill with them this year.

    I think I am going to try to grow some in a straw bed this year as well as just in rows. I've grown them in raised cylanders the past 2 years.

    I'm driving myself nuts since I don't have them all in the ground yet ;-)
    Is the webbing for bugs? or just longer growing season?

  5. Potatoes and tomatoes seems to be the two things people love to grow. And of those potatoes are so thankful: not too difficult to grow, many varieties (some of those colourful and unusual) and you can do so much with them in the kitchen.

    The fiberweb acts like a greenhouse, trapping moisture and heat. It's mainly to make it possible to plant the potatoes this early and to make them grow as fast as possible. For example, we had a real cold night two days ago when it dipped to -5 and without the sheeting it'd be a really risky gamble to plant this early. I know some people use it in their gardens too, to protect and hasten the growth of their flowers.

    It's a real race between the farmers to harvest as fast as possible so they can sell when the prices are high. After midsummer especially, the prices plummet. Just a few decades ago it was common for the first new potatoes to be harvested about two weeks before midsummer's eve (when Swedes traditionally eat these primeurs with pickled herring, sourcream anda glass of brännvin), but with the new varieties and all this fiberweb etc the harvest is almost over by then, having started already in May. Some of the farmers around here use double or triple layers hoping it'll improve the rate at which the plants grow...

  6. Thankyou, that was interesting. I have never really given any thought to potato growing before and now I have learned something new! Do you get sick of eating them? You should put up a few interesting recipes?!

  7. You know, one might think I'd get bored of eating something like that, but I grew up eating boiled potatoes with dinner almost every day. But, ok, when picking them on a hot day and you get yet another rotten potato in your hands which has a nauseating smell with great staying power, well, you don't exactly long for dinner right there and then...

    Not sure I have any good recipes. Don't do anything more advanced than gratins. I think many would agree with me when I say new potatoes should be boiled with twigs of dill and eaten with pickled herring (matjesill) and gräddfil (sourcream). I like adding boiled eggs to that. Like we do on Midsummer's Eve. I don't drink it, but brännvin like akvavit is normally the recommended beverage. Or fried in a pan, salted and eaten with fried eggs and bacon. Yum!

    With good potatoes, you don't need much to get a delicious meal. It's all about simplicity.

  8. thanks for that, pickled herring with potato sounds quite exotic to me!

  9. Wow, this post is interesting. Your recipes sound tasty. BTW I think some kind of vodka is made of potatoes, so they are really versatile...

    1. Thanks!

      Yes, potatoes are used for brännvin/vodka. The ones we pick aren't destined for the bottle, but the fact is that there is a local vodka made from Bjäre new potatoes available (Karlsson's Gold Vodka). In Sweden it is said that the potato didn't become a popular crop until countess Eva Ekeblad (neé de la Gardie) figured out how to make brännvin -- the swedish equivalent of vodka -- of it. Alströmer tried all his life to convince the people that it could be a very useful crop for feeding the starving, but was met with scepticism. Ah, the power of alcohol... (Though part of the potato boom was probably also due to the fact that Ekeblad was better att spreading the knowledge to the people than Alströmer. But it isn't wrong to say that Swedes learned to drink potatoes before they learn to enjoy them on the dinner plate.)


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