Friday, 10 August 2012

Potato season (part 2: harvest)

Finally! I've been saying I was going to do this post for over a year now. Things have a way of getting inbetween and it's been hard to cull the photos, but, at last, here it is. Hope all of you out there curious about modern potato cultivation or just about what I do every spring and summer like it.

Because it's so long, I've put a break here.

For those of you who have no idea why there's suddenly farm equipment on a bead blog, perhaps I should introduce this post with a short explanation. I, my sis and my mom spend parts of the spring and summer as hourlies, working for a nearby part-time farmer who specialises in so called new potatoes -- a specialty our peninsula is well-known for and the potatoes grown here are distributed to the whole country, some are even shipped to Finland. In last year's post And so the potato season begins, I showed pics from the setting/planting, promising to do a follow-up post on the harvest for those interested. This is that post.

First I thought I'd just show a few pics of what the field looks like. Note that all these pics are taken in mid-season and we'd already harvested a third of the field on the sunny morning when I took these pics. The harvest begins about two months after planting if the weather is good. In the beginning the price can be high -- this year I believe it was 25 SEK per kilo the first day we worked -- and then it soon plummeted to around 3 SEK, which pretty much is the break-even point for many farmers.

The cows above are our neighbours. It's mostly potato fields in the area, but there are a few patches of grazing land too (notice the trees: swedish meadows and grazing lands usually have trees, which have cause problems with the EU). We also see many other animals like roedeers, rabbits/hares, the next-door neighbour's cat and birds, ranging from seagulls and red kite to swallows and white wagtail.

You can easily spot that's it's not the beginning of the season due to all the weed mixed with the potato plants. The rows look nothing like thise in May, when the harvest usually begins.

And so this is the machine we use for the harvest. Some don't have roofs, but I really think it's needed. On hot days it shields you from the sun, when it rains it keeps you dry (more or less) and when it's dry and windy it keeps some of the dust out.

On the last pic you see the "shovel wheel" that unearths the potato plants and lift then onto the first conveyor belt as you can see below.

At the end of the belt (under the yellow plasic in the pic below), the haulm is separated from the potatoes. The haulm falls off the machine while the rest falls onto a moving "carpet" (another conveyore belt) to the right. The black pegs you can see in the back on the right side then moves the potatoes and "garbage" like stones, clods and sometimes weeds onto the two "open" conveyor belts in the front of the pic. This is where we work, sorting good potatoes from the green, cracked and rotten as well as removing stones, clods etc. Good potatoes goes in the big lane and the rest on the narrow one where it's collected in a "stone pocket" that's occasionally emptied.

The potatoes then end up in the big space at the front of the machine. This day we were filling the big 200 kg crates or there would've been a makeshift table under the conveyor belt for the boxes to be filled. Notice the yellow plastic at the bottom? That's also a moving carpet for unloading the potatoes.

For obvious reasons I couldn't take any pics of it in action (I get paid to work, not to take photos, you know -- these were all taken before we began that day). But I did get some paparazzi pics of the people working in the next field.

In the second pic, you can see the potatoes being unloaded into the big crates (which stand on separate plastic pallets, which in turn stands two by two on wooden pallets).  The crates, by the way, are delivered flat so that's usually the first thing we do when we arrive, start folding crates. The last couple of years, the buyers have only wanted either the small 15 kg crates or the big 200 kg crates. To fill a pallet, you usually need 48 of the small crates. After being filled, each crate is labelled with a label stating the name and number of the farmer and the name of the potato variety. The label is then stamped with the date of the day

Second photo is of the lids and bottoms for the big crates. They stack up pretty nicely, don't you think?

And that's about it. The job's easy and the biggest problem is usually the weather. Hot weather is murder to work in, not just because of the strong sun but also because dry weather causes the machine to sir up a lot of dust. Also it makes the rotten potatoes stink even worse... Rain is a problem not so much because we get wet, but when it rains too much the machine will sink and the sorting system doesn't work properly. Also, you can't leave the crates out as they get damp and begin to disingrate. Everything have to be covered in heavy tarpaulins. Wind is a problem as the crates won't say in place. It also makes a PITA to remove the fibre cloths (that were likewise a PITA to put out to begin with).

Add to that that you have to be finished by the time the lorry arrives, around 11-12, which can be quite stressful at times. We usually just have the morning to finish an order, no matter how large or small (we get the call for work in the previous afternoon as we only work once a buyer places an order). Usually, we begin work some time around 6 or 7, but it has happened that we've started at 5:30 in order to be finished in time. Or just to avoid the hottest parts of the day. A work day can be just a couple of hours short -- to fill a small order or because the weather puts a stop to the work -- or a whole day. I'd say six hours is a normal working day for us during the harvest season.

The harvest usually ends in june or july. The last couple of years we've worked a lot after the midsummer weekend (i.e. Midsummer's Eve and Midsummer Day, when new potatoes are traditionally eaten) as the demand for potatoes for that particular holiday hasn't been as big as it used to. Then there's a break before the last days of work in August when we pick the potatoes that'll be stored and planted next year. And that is the end for the potato season, if not for the farmer, so at least for us as seasonal farm workers.

So now you know a little more of the work we do -- and how those tender white potatoes end up on your dinner table.


  1. Well, this is really different from my grandparents growing some potatoes for their household needs on their farm when I was little. Interesting to read about how our food comes to our plates. Despite of all those machines, human labour is still needed. I can imagine how important the weather is for pleasant working conditions in the fields.

    1. Yes, it's a whole different level this, isn't it. We've always had a small potato patch that's dug by hand and my grandparents used to grow some both for household needs and to sell in the . They used an older machine pulled by a tractor. It was pretty much just a plow that pulled up the potatoes and a conveyor belt transported them a bit before falling back on the ground where we kids would be on our knees picking them in big old potato baskets.

      I've also heard about the machine that predated the one grandpa had. Sprätten. It pretty much just unearthed the potatoes and spread them everywhere in the process. Not in a straight line, but all over the field.

      Today there actually are fully automatic machines available, I believe. Mostly for winter potatoes -- it's mostly these new potatoes that need some extra care. They are more effective too: our machine, for example, just covers one row at the time, but other modern machines can cover two or four rows. And they are usually whole vehicles, not just something you attach to the tractor. There are also hi-tech machines controlled by a computer and monitored by the tractor driver. I've heard the farmers talk about it. It's extremely expensive, though, so it's just for the real big farmers. I don't know much about that sort of potato cultivation, though.

      Don't know the english name, but if you google potatisupptagare, you'll find pics of various kinds of old and modern machines.


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