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Potato Growing Progress

Footnotes to Long Island History

Potato Growing Progress

Spuds Once Unknown Here:

by

Thomas R. Bayles


            The white or “Irish” potato which now occupies such an important place in the diet of the American people, was almost unknown during the early years of the settlement of our country.

            The records of the New York State Agricultural society for 1850 give some interesting information regarding the history of the potato.

            “Potatoes have received but limited attention,” the records stated.  “the ravages of disease and the absence of any remedy restrict the production of this crop to a quantity barely sufficient for domestic use.  The yield seldom exceeds 100 bushels per acre.  The crop for New York state in 1849 did not exceed 80,000 bushels.”

            “The fearful results in Ireland, arising from the general destruction of the crop in 1847, when famine and disease caused the death of many thousands of the people, induced the offer of valuable rewards for the discovery of the cause, and numerous reports were presented to the agricultural societies of Ireland, Scotland and England, but none of them were satisfactory.”    

            According to this report, the potato was not cultivated in Scotland before 1750, and then with doubt and hesitation, but by 1800 the potato formed a large part of the food of the scotch people, especially in the Highland districts.  The Scotch made great efforts to contend with the potato disease, which in 1847 was depriving them of food, and causing suffering almost as bad as affected Ireland. 

            In 1806 the white potato and the “leather coat” were the only varieties cultivated, although occasionally the large pink eye or “Virginian” variety, was planted.  It was discovered that a variety call the Perthshire red yielded nearly double the quantity of the other varieties, and this came into general use.

            When the early crop first comes it is common to see huge trailer trucks rolling this way for supplies from most of the states east of the Mississippi, and just recently the writer saw one from Montgomery, Ala.

            In 1850 it was customary to plant them in rows 4 feet apart, quite a contrast with the present custom of planting rows about 30 inches apart.

            Fifty years ago most of the potatoes were planted by hand in a furrow made with a one-horse plow, cultivated with a one horse cultivator and dug by hand with a “potato fork.”

            Then came the potato planter drawn by horses and more modern methods of cultivation and horse-drawn potato digger.

            These early methods seem a far cry from the present streamlined operation of the potato farms, with tractor-drawn planters planting two or more rows at a time, and power cultivation, spraying and digging.  And now even the picking is mostly done by machine and most of the farms have irrigation.

            What was 100 years ago a very small and unimportant crop is now one of the major importance, and Suffolk country ranks third in the nation in the production of potatoes, with an average of about 50,000 acres yielding an average of 350 bushels per acre or over 17,000,000 bushels, quite a contrast to the 80,000 bushels produced in all New York state in 1849.

            Potatoes have been sipped by raiload until recent years, but now most of the crop moves by truck, large quantities going all through the south as far as Florida and all other sections of the country within trucking distance.

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