The thrill of the potato harvest


Award-winning columnist Richard Larsen, of Pocatello, is president of the brokerage firm Larsen Financial. He graduated from Idaho State University with degrees in history and political science.

For those of us who were raised on Eastern Idaho potato farms, there is nothing quite like harvest time. The anticipation leading up to the harvest is nearly as great as the exhilaration of the actual digging. The night air begins to cool, the potato vines freeze or are killed to stop tuber growth, the equipment is readied, and then the fun begins. Digging!

For those who have never participated in the potato-country ritual, it is a most singular event. And even though the technology of potato extraction has changed over the years, the excitement hasn’t.

It wasn’t that long ago that a single-row digger would lay the spuds on the ground while workers would pick them one at a time and place them in baskets or large burlap sacks (the type historically used for three-legged races), to be hefted onto a flat-bed truck for hauling to storage or to the potato packers. I’ve got a picture of my dad on an old Caterpillar pulling a single-row digger with an ear-to-ear grin that’s priceless.

By the time I was a teenager, we had graduated to a self-powered two-row digger that was quite unique. The front and rear tires of a John Deere 4020 were removed, and a crane would lift and mount the tireless tractor onto the Dahlman digger, making it a self-propelled harvester.

Now there are four-row diggers, and windrowers can add eight additional rows of spuds so a ten-wheel truck bulk bed can be filled in literally a few minutes.

The Snake River School District and a few others have, for as long as I can remember, closed down for two weeks for Harvest Break. Not only do the farm families need their kids to help with the harvest, but most of the school kids work through the harvest as well, driving truck, picking rocks and clods on the harvester and off of the cellar conveyor belts, and operating the piler that fills the cellar.

The girls that worked on the harvester and with the cellar crew provided remarkable motivation for teenage boys to work hard and to be manly while doing so. Even more so if one of those boys happened to be somewhat smitten with one of those girls. More than one harvest “vacation” became memorable by being so motivated. And there are few things quite as manly as driving a big potato harvester or a big diesel truck. I’m sure those gals were duly impressed!

For those of you involved in spud break this year, avoid the mistakes of those who have worked the harvest before you. While driving truck, don’t hit the harvester boom because you were primping in the mirror, and don’t cut the lights in the cellar to sneak a kiss from someone in the cellar crew. I’ve “heard” such things have happened!