My dad made a living working in cotton mills. He took pride in what he made from the soil.
He grew up on a small farmstead, about 50 acres of thin soil, woodlands, marsh and rocky outcrops that was subdivided among three siblings, leaving each with less than 20 acres of land, hardly enough to make ends meet for a family of seven, especially considering the quality of most of the land in my dad’s portion.
He did get the creek, including a fine swimming hole and woodlands with oak, hickory and walnut—excellent squirrel habitat. We had some pretty good hunting and fishing but limited crop resources—except for the garden spots.
Dad always raised a garden, a big one, with the usual mix of tomatoes, beans, peas, sweet corn, okra, onions, melons, and what I consider his specialty, sweet potatoes. Dad grew the best sweet potatoes I have ever eaten, orange-red flesh that offered the perfect side dish to any meal. Mom’s sweet potato pies and casseroles were unsurpassed.
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I thought about potato harvest with recent weather changes. Several mornings have dawned cold and frosty. That’s the kind of weather that always meant digging sweet potatoes. A good “killing frost” withered the vine, making it easier to pull them off so dad could run a plow under the rows to turn up the sweet potatoes. Dad ran the tractor because the plow had to stay straight to follow the row and limit the number of potatoes cut as the steel sliced into the earth. The rest of us followed behind and picked the potatoes from the red clay and made small piles that we came back to and loaded into baskets. Eventually, most of the harvest went to the local potato house where, for a small fee, the proprietor cured and stored them until we needed a few for the table.
We enjoyed sweet potatoes all winter, but picking them up from storage was nowhere near as exciting as pulling them from the soil. Harvest time made the hard work that went into planting the potato slips (by hand), pulling weeds (also manually), fertilizing and finally removing the vines worth the effort. Seeing those orange-skinned sweet potatoes turned up from the soil was like unearthing buried treasure.
I’ve witnessed that same excitement—on a much larger scale—every fall for more than three dozen years as a farm writer. A corn producer recently told me that harvest is the best time of the year because he gets to see how well he’s done and also can observe any mistakes he might have made.
In recent weeks I’ve watched farmers harvest corn, cotton and other crops and have been privileged to ride along as they moved combines and strippers through their fields. Most are making good yields. They are reluctant to brag about how good their crops are. They remember all too well recent crops that produced little and understand that they will suffer through more of those if they continue to farm. It’s part of the business.
They also would prefer that crop prices were a bit higher but understand that commodity markets are beyond their control. Anyway, it’s the production that brings them back every spring to put more seed in the ground. Whether it’s three long rows of sweet potatoes in a garden spot or 5,000 acres of cotton, the goal is to make a crop, to take pride in what they make from the soil.