The potato bugs have emerged from the earth and ascended to the green leaves and we are at war. The battles go slow-motion, a lot of shuffling and bending and picking, and sprinkling diatomaceous earth from a repurposed shaker of seafood rub. We can no longer simply stroll the rows and revel in the burgeoning greenness of it all, no, we are ever eagle-eyed for any sign of a striped beetle, for the fluorescent orange egg clusters, the greasy little larvae intent on stealing our hash browns from the top down.
I grew up in commercial potato country (and, family legend has it, narrowly missed out on becoming a potato magnate heir). There was a lot of spraying, some of it by helicopter, which we kids thought was just terrific, because when you are growing up in Chippewa County just short of the Rusk County line without a television, watching a man in a glass bubble swooping back and forth in his chopper is pretty much all the IMAX you’re gonna get. When it was time for harvest, they knocked the plants out with a final spritz and then the potato picking machines arrived, and if you’ve ever run a potato fork I can say you flat drool over the idea of a potato picker you can drive. Sadly, Dad couldn’t be convinced.
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To this point we’ve kept the hordes at bay with our daily sprinkling, picking and scraping, but I know from experience they haven’t even gotten started. We’ve been doing some reading and are going to try mixing the diatomaceous earth into a sprayable dilution. We’re also reviewing our stores of neem and spinosad. Some guides say to drop the adult insects into soapy water, but I smash them on the spot with a twist of my heel. It is odd to despise an insect so, especially since each is just doing what it is programmed to do.
There is an irony here, in that you can tell from 40 paces that I don’t really need any more potatoes. But a potato is not just a potato. We grow red ones and brown ones and yellow ones and fat ones and skinny ones, and who can imagine stew without them? Or to be cheated of the steam that escapes when you slit the skin and scrunch the baker to receive the sour cream or butter pat? Or the sizzle of them sliced thin and frying simply in the pan? What sad island is the roast without its potatoes tucked in all around?
So we’ll put the back of our necks in the sun and keep up the good fight. There are more of them than us, but here is my note of hope: Last year we fought the potato bug battle to what appeared to be a draw, at best. They devastated a third of our plants. Left the stems stripped and the leaves lacy. Even worse, the weeds got away from us and outgrew the potatoes. Come fall, we took out the forks and cardboard boxes, and then had to go for more boxes, and then even more, because despite it all the ground was studded with potatoes of every sort. Sometimes when things are bad you just stick with it because somewhere down in the dirt there is fruit.
An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. Audio versions may air on “Tent Show Radio” (tentshowradio.com). Read more from Michael Perry at www.sneezingcow.com.