Sorting, Classifying and the Heartbreak of Wasting Food
By Cam Mather
I waste a lot of food. I guess we all do when you read some of the studies that analyze how much food ends up being wasted. (There’s good article here about the subject;
But it seems to be worse for me, because it’s so in my face. There are the cauliflowers that are going brown in the garden because I missed the window to harvest them. There are the radishes that went to seed 2 days after they were at their prime, or the beets that are the size of small pumpkins and way past their best before date.
It’s also because we can’t possibly use or save everything that we grow. This year has been better because we were selling at the market, so we got a little more efficient in terms of harvesting and using stuff. At the end of each market day I would gather up the leftovers and drop some extras in to my best customers.
It’s fall now and absolutely the best time of year here. The bugs are gone, and the days are cool. I’m always amazed at how much more I can accomplish when heat doesn’t drain my energy. Our onions are harvested and drying on racks in the horse barn. We’re just about sold out of garlic. We’re gathering the squash and getting ready to put them into the root cellar. And I spend a great deal of my time harvesting potatoes.
I love potatoes. I think I could be a potato-tarian. If I could take just one food to a desert island, it would be potatoes. And I’m not alone. The United Nations declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato because: “The potato produces more nutritious food more quickly, on less land, and in harsher climates than any other major crop—up to 85 percent of the plant is edible human food, compared to around 50 percent in cereals.” What I take from this is that even if you don’t have great soil, potatoes allow to you to maximize the nutrition you get out of the soil by producing a healthy, long- lasting source of food energy. The fact that they keep so well with almost no energy inputs make them the perfect food for the future.
Here’s what I wrote about them in my book “The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook:”
“Potatoes have more protein than human breast milk, and since our protein needs are greatest when we’re newborns and are doubling our weight every six months, it’s obvious that we can get all the protein we need from a potato. The amino-acid pattern of the protein in a potato is well matched to what humans need. Potatoes are very rich in many minerals and vitamins, providing one-fifth of our daily potassium requirement, and are particularly high in vitamin C. A single medium-sized potato contains about half the recommended daily intake of vitamin C, so if you’re having a crisis of conscience about that morning glass of orange juice that’s trucked from the south to your breakfast table, don’t worry; the potato has you covered.”
So if I had to, I could live on potatoes. And I grow them exceptionally well. Anyone should be able to grow them well, that’s the beauty of them. And best of all, once you invest in the seed stock, you just hold some back each year, and you’ve got your seed potatoes for next year that don’t cost you a penny. Potatoes are cheap at the store, but mine are free (and organically grown), so you can’t beat that.
The downside of potatoes of course is that they’re heavy. Let me rephrase that. The great thing about potatoes is that they make for a great workout when you’re handling them. So I will usually dig two or three rows, fill up the wheelbarrow, and then get them ready for storage. I find one wheelbarrow full a day is usually enough for my back.
I separate out the best potatoes to store long term, and I set aside the rougher looking ones, with some scab or a spot that looks like it might turn bad, and I use them up in the fall. I store the good ones in plastic buckets and put peat moss around them. If I was a good environmentalist I’d use sawdust or dried sand from my property, but peat moss is dry and light. Our “root cellar” is actually the old cistern under the kitchen. It’s a perfect spot. It stays close to freezing but never goes below, and has high humidity. My vegetables store quite well down there, but to get to it, I have to lower myself through a trap door in the pantry off the kitchen. Everything has to be lifted down into it. I used to use sand but it is just too heavy for me. It was bad enough lowering those heavy buckets of potatoes and sand down into the cistern but even worse, by spring some of that “dry” sand in the buckets had absorbed some moisture. It’s one thing to lift them down it into the cistern. It’s whole other thing to lift them out. It’s like the clean and jerk you see weight lifters doing in the Olympics, only with buckets of sand.
This year there’s been another reason to sort my potatoes. I’m actually going through them to pick out the best ones to sell. I want the skins to have as few blemishes and scabs on them as possible. I’m sure this is easy to accomplish when you are using pesticides and herbicides and lots of other chemicals to grown your potatoes. I don’t use any those things on my potatoes and so some of them aren’t very pretty.
So this is my new fall past time, sitting at my wheelbarrow sorting and classifying potatoes. It makes me feel closer to my daughters. I always remember watching Michelle, who was an exceptional teacher and then homeschooled our girls for six years, working with the girls when they were young on sorting and classifying. And they graduated from university, so this apparently is good from my Dr. Pepper-addled brain.
As I work my way through the wheelbarrow I always start with the biggest ones, and eventually what’s left is pretty small. And my back has usually had enough by then. And the reality is, I’m not going to stand at the kitchen sink all winter cleaning puny little potatoes. I always end up with a few boxes of very small potatoes. I can’t offer them to friends, because then it looks like I’m unloading my crap on them. There’s not enough to take them to a food bank and I’m sure it would look bad too.
My Grandmother would love them. She loves my potatoes! And she has the time to clean them. The problem is she lives 5 hours away. And I don’t think it would be economical to ship them. Suddenly they’d be worth 10 times the going price.
So this fall, as most falls, many small potatoes will find themselves in my compost. We did have someone comment on a blog about how they put their potatoes peels on the woodstove in the winter and once they soften up, feed them to the chickens. Right now when we let the chickens out of their pen they feast on grasshoppers. That won’t last much longer, so this year maybe I’ll hold onto the small potatoes and see if we can figure out a zero-carbon way to prepare them for the chickens. I’m concerned their diet is going to get pretty boring in the winter, so it looks like maybe these baby potatoes might be the solution!