Cutting seed potatoes served as a respite from farmwork
Mychal Wilmes found his dad to be as relaxed as he ever was when he was sitting on the porch cutting seed potatoes.
When Dad was caught up with field work, he liked to help plant the garden. His favorite thing was cutting up seed potatoes and teaching his youngest son how to do it.
“Always make sure you have two eye buds on each slice," he said. “And its best to let them scab over before planting because they grow better."
The red and white potatoes had grown long tentacles in the wood box kept in the darkest part of the fruit cellar. The shelving opposite the box was filled with tomatoes, peaches, pears, and dill and sweet pickles that Mother made the fall before.
When I was very young and the house was filled with siblings, Dad planted nearly an acre of potatoes. Uncles and aunts helped with harvest. Helpers ate freshly dug potatoes baked in a field fire fueled by dried vines and tree branches.
When little could be purchased outside of sugar, flour and coffee for the kitchen, Dad grew a large plot of rutabagas. The harvest was so abundant that Mother cooked rutabagas often and in so many ways that her children lost their appetites at the sight of the hated vegetable.
Dad was as relaxed as a high-strung man could be cutting potatoes on the porch despite corn planting having been halted by rain. While he worked, the sound of a Minnesota Twins baseball game could be heard through an open kitchen window. He thought slugger Harmon Killebrew and pitcher Jim Kaat were the best players on the team.
Just imagine, he said, how great it is to be a ballplayer. Although he never said it, he surely counted himself blessed to be a farmer.
Dad also whittled animal shapes from wood when he had the time. The versatile jack knife, which he kept in his bib overalls, had been his companion way back when the planter was pulled by horses and corn checked so that it could be cultivated both ways.
It was so much better to plant on a sun-splashed spring day than to husk corn by hand in cold November when daylight hours were so short.
Mother interrupted my porch sitting to gather goose eggs carelessly laid beside the puddles that formed in the driveway. She used the first few early spring eggs to make cake because they weren’t likely to be fertile. Later, fertile eggs were put beneath Bandy hens that were kept in the smokehouse. The small hens could sit on three eggs and appeared overwhelmed when the goslings grew so large.
Mother had a love-hate relationship with her geese. They caused no small annoyance by spending nights on the cement next to our front door where they left a stinky mess. The gander was an aggressive beast who attacked children and adults with equal relish. Mother used a broom to chase the gaggle away.
Because the township ran through our farmstead, it was my responsibility to keep poultry off the road. Chickens and ducks crossed the road without fear, which meant that one or two were killed on the road.
However, she had nursed the hatchlings and kept them safe in a chicken-wire fence. It was for this reason impossible to kill them. Dad was given that task, but Mother found no joy in it.
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The geese’s soft down was carefully plucked, washed, and dried on a clothesline that was strung near the furnace. The pillows, because they were meant to be gifts for her sisters and married children, had to be perfect — and they always were.
Mother had long pleaded with Dad to build a good fence around the garden to keep poultry out of the strawberry bed and vegetable rows. He delayed in getting around to it for a long time before she lost patience.
The fence, replete with a hinged and sturdy gate made from lathes, was a remarkable feat of engineering and thus greatly admired by family. Few farmers ever completely retire from the profession, but when Dad slowed down he spent hours in the garden working beside his wife.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.