GENE LOGSDON (1931 – 2016)
From Our Archives Sept 2007
[What happened when a band of merry seminarians full of modern science, took on a traditional old farmer in a contest to decide whether potatoes grown organically would yield better than those grown chemically. An excerpt from the novel, The Lords of Folly, by Gene Logsdon.]
In a rural area where even a car passing on a country road was a Social Event, the Great Potato Race had taken on the trappings of festival: a cross between a county fair and a prayer meeting. Various interested parties began to descend upon Oblate Gabe’s and farmer Hasse’s two potato patches. Horticulturists and agronomists led discussions in the use of sulfur in potato culture and on the increasing immunity of potato bugs to insecticides. Young farmers argued about whether the oblates’ close plantings producing a greater number of smaller potatoes would out-yield Hasse’s wider plantings producing fewer but larger potatoes. Old farmers wondered if it made any difference whether big or small potatoes were used for seed. Harriet Snod’s Garden Club discussed whether Pisces, Scorpio or Capricorn was the better sign to plant under… Oblate Blaze arranged a special ceremony that involved the Prior walking up and down the rows of the Josephian’s potatoes sprinkling holy water, being careful not to do so in his usual ample manner, lest some of the precious liquid fall accidentally on Hasse’s potatoes too…
In case holy water was not enough, Gabe turned to irrigation during a summer dry spell. He showed farmers and agronomists how he could easily irrigate his potatoes by damming up the laterals of his drainage system so that the ever-flowing spring water from the swamps filled the ditches to the desired level, allowing the water to run out into the potato patch.
Hasse gave no indication that he knew of this cagey maneuver, but he added more mulch around his organic plants and let everyone know that this practice was much cheaper and not only effective at holding sufficient moisture in the soil without irrigation but also at controlling weeds without herbicides.
The director of the local Farm Bureau chapter dropped by, making his usual point about how his organization was against farm subsidies except when farmers needed them, which was almost always. The local chapter of the Minnesota Organic Farmers set up a booth in front of Hasse’s potatoes and passed out literature on the effectiveness and benefits of organic food production. Hasse was more than a little embarrassed by this turn of events because he was only growing spuds the way he had always done, and suspected organic farming might be a socialist plot.
The organic farmers inspired an equal but opposite reaction. A hastily formed coalition of local custom spray applicators and chemical fertilizer dealers set up their own booth in front of the Josephian potatoes and proclaimed to all visitors how pesticides fed the world. It was now Gabe’s turn to be embarrassed. He secretly believed that chemical companies, like himself, did not care a bit about feeding the world but only how much money they could make.
To take advantage of the situation, Melonhead [Oblate Mel] set up a booth from which he dispensed his herbal remedies, his “Ascension All Natural Poultice Bandages” and his new “Ascension Natural Wormer—For Livestock But Okay For People Too.” Some days his voluntary offering box was stuffed with dollar bills. Prior Robert worried about the efficacy and legality of Melonhead’s potions, especially the wormer. “Relax, Prior, this is an all-natural wormer,” said Melonhead. “You’d get a really terrible case of the runs and have to stop drinking it long before it could really hurt you.”
Before long both the organic and the chemical congregations were locked in a wordy contest to see which could appear to the public as the most environmentally-pure group. As the debate reached fever pitch, a Wildlife Agent from the Soil Conservation Service showed up to spoil all the fun. He scolded Oblate Gabriel and Farmer Hasse for destroying a wetland and ruining wildlife habitat. Until the situation was remedied, the SCS official officiously told them, both were disqualified from government subsidies. He then waited for the anguished objections and lame excuses that he was so used to hearing from farmers when informed of their sinfulness: they had not known, etc.; there was plenty of swamp left for wildlife, etc.; drained acres weren’t destroying anything really, but utilizing nature better and increasing the habitat for some wildlife including coonhunters, etc. etc. But neither Oblate Gabriel nor Farmer Hasse reacted at all, only staring at the official in amused silence. Finally Gabe said to him: “The Josephians aren’t in any of the subsidy programs.” “Neither am I,” said Hasse, who despised all forms of government interference, good or bad. The official turned away, his crest drooping.
Harvest day in October found the area around the potato patches looking, with the various tented booths, more like a medieval country fair than a farm field. A big crowd had gathered, with parked cars backed up a quarter mile both ways along the road leading to it, like at a farm sale. The potato vines had all matured and died and there was no way to tell, save from the bulging plant hills, just how good the crop was. But everyone knew that both God’s and mammon’s plots had grown as equally perfect during the season as any potato patch in the memory of Carver County. All that was left to see was whether Oblate Gabriel’s potatoes had gone to vine even a little, for ignoring the signs of the zodiac, or whether Hasse’s manure was as potent as he claimed it was to make up for his wider plant spacings. Bets were placed both ways and the odds stayed even. Caution ruled all pronouncements, agricultural and theological. The Prior, who was gripped by a secret panic that Hasse would win and he would be blamed for exposing the Church to ridicule, gave an invocation, asking God’s blessing upon all and hoping that out of the contest, love would flow between everyone in the community. That much could hardly get him in trouble with his Provincial who was already uneasy with the attention that the Great Potato Race had brought to the Josephians.
The Farm Bureau president once more informed the crowd of the foolishness of government subsidies except when farmers needed them which was almost always. The County Extension Agent pointed out that he was there to serve all the people, regardless of race, color, or agricultural philosophy. He had decided not to use the word “creed” in this particular instance because he feared that could be interpreted as violating the separation of church and state. Then the crowd pressed forward and the potato harvester began to make its way down the rows.
Cries of wonder erupted from the watchers as potatoes rolled out of the Josephian rows over the shaker rods at the rear of the digger and fell in a steady stream onto the ground. “My God,” Kluntz swore, “there must be 30 spuds in every hill!” So as not to lean too much towards God in his expletives, he added: “Hell, that’s going to be an 800 bushel per acre yield!”
But when the digger bit into Hasse’s rows, the murmur from the crowd buzzed with even more electric charge. Though perhaps fewer in number, potatoes bigger than softballs tumbled steadily from the rear of the machine. “Godallmighty and great balls of fire,” Kluntz said, playing it both ways again, “some of those spuds must weigh a pound apiece.”
Volunteers swarmed over the potatoes and gathered them in the sacks Hasse had provided. Each crop was weighed in turn by the county agent at the scales, closely watched by the supporters of God and mammon, organicists and chemicalists, moon signers and PhDs.
As the weighing of God’s potatoes ended, a murmur went through the crowds. Sixty thousand, two hundred and forty pounds, the county agent cried excitedly. Over thirty tons per acre! Who had ever heard of such a yield? Surely a new record. God be praised, some of the more pious oblates whispered…. The county agent then tallied up the list of figures from Hasse’s patch. He glanced up nervously at the crowd, a queer look on his face. He added the figures together again. And again. He recalculated God’s potato yield. And again. He shook his head. How could this be? The crowd edged forward, craning at his every blink. He sighed. “This is amazing, but I get the very same yield on Ed Hasse’s acre. Sixty thousand, two hundred and forty pounds.”
Stunned silence gripped the crowd. The awesomeness of the fact that both plots had made exactly the same yield slowly sank into the collective mind. What were the odds against that happening? Finally The Very Reverend Lukey spoke aloud what the others had dared not put into words: “It’s a miracle.”
The crowd buzzed. How else explain what had happened? Even Hasse shifted nervously from one foot to another, looking as discomforted as if he had tried to swallow one of his big spuds whole.
But if it’s a miracle, the Prior thought, along with everyone else, who is it a miracle for? Was it miraculous that organic, zodiacal potatoes equaled scientific, chemical potatoes in yield or vice versa? Was it a miracle for God or for mammon? Was God trying to be politically correct? Was that what the Bible meant by instructing the faithful to make friends with the mammon of iniquity? Would he lose his position as Prior for exposing the Josephians to this thorny theological question? He turned to Oblate Gabriel for some assurance, but Oblate Gabriel was loading sacks of potatoes on the Josephian truck as fast as he could. If he hurried, he could beat Hasse to the farmer’s market in Minneapolis and get a better price.
Potato chip collector with Johnny Carson