'I has to dig 'em!'

An elderly pleasantry in the field of agronomy concerns the city slicker who stopped to ask Farmer Brown how his potatoes were turning out. ''They ain't,'' replied Brown. ''I has to dig 'em!'' I've finished digging my potatoes and they turned out well. The Green Mountains are a delight, larger than common, and I have fifteen hods - enough to carry us through the year. I also have a few odd potatoes, such as the Nova Scotia blues and the Lesodas, but when Green Mountains are available, no other kind is important.

Getting the potatoes under cover amounts to the swan song of the season, and with some tidying the garden will wait until spring. I meditated as I picked (in Maine one ''picks'' potatoes - not pick up, just pick) that the harvest is by no means the end of everything. Thoughts run to next year, and what shall be planted where the taties are, and how many beans, and if we'll need quite so many tomatoes. Dirt must be ready for the vernal seed flats, and there will be impatience until the seed catalogs come.

My potatoes turned out very well; the best crop I've had here at tidewater since we left our hillside farm. I am something of the odd one here, since I dig with my highlander's potato tool - four tines and a long handle. My neighbors, who run to fishermen, mostly find their potatoes with a clam hoe - a similar tool but with a handle scarcely eighteen inches long. The difference is one of posture. I work fairly erect, but a clamdigger gets down close to his subject. And I noticed right away that the potato basket is unknown 'longshore and the crop is picked in clam hods. The Maine clam hod, a slatted container, is sometimes called a ''rocker,'' because it is rocked back and forth in salt water to wash mud from the clams. Made to size, it holds half a bushel. So, with fifteen hods I have seven-and-a-half bushels of Green Mountains. The potato basket, meantime, is traditional in the up-country potato fields. It is not made to size, and can be had big for adults and small for children. Micmac Indians have made them for years, and everybody who picks potatoes in Aroostook County needs a basket.

Except that today the mechanical picker has rather much eliminated hand picking - these are great powered machines that lumber along elevating potatoes from the ground to a platform where workers ride and sort. And the basket needn't be sized in Aroostook, where potatoes are measured by tons and carloads. I have a couple of Maine potato baskets, and perhaps they are now valuable museum relics, but I have conformed and pick my potatoes in hods.

The growers of seed potatoes continue to supply Green Mountains, but I gather they are mostly for the home-garden trade. The variety, which is at the top of the eating list, gave way to new varieties, developed by the experiment stations , that will produce more per acre, stand up better in storage and shipment, and resist the hazards of cultivation. In this, the consumer played a part. Unwilling to stand ground and demand quality, the shopper took a lesser kind and , as with good money, good potatoes were driven from circulation. Those who yum-yum over a baked Russet have got to be people who don't know what a Green Mountain is. In the back-yard garden, where we cater to our family likes, the Green Mountain remains constant, and on the table it still stands supreme.

But we do have good times with the Nova Scotias. Tradition, not always too reliable, says the Nova Scotian is called a Bluenose because of his preference for the purple potatoes which are prominent in that province. Another version is that facing into the prevailing onshore winds causes the Nova Scotia proboscis to take on a whetstone hue. Take your choice, but I plant a few hills of Nova Scotia blues every spring, and we like them for frying, best French. Only the skins are blue, you understand - noses or potatoes. They have an elongated shape , noses and potatoes, and the potatoes often get irregular with bumps and bunches. By no means a ''good looker,'' they are all the same a fine eater and we manage a bushel or two a winter.

Which is the purpose of the harvest. Digging the potatoes isn't just the end of summer - 'tis the beginning of a snug winter, larder full, leisure coming up, and goodies every meal.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.