Digging Potatoes

I’ve been MIA for a few days, however, since what I’ve been doing is the source of today’s post, I think you’ll understand. Many of my friends know that I come from a family of farmers (4th generation), but very few actually understand what that means when I say we grow grains and potatoes, let alone how we harvest them. A few have mentioned they’d like to see some pictures. So, to give you an idea how a potato goes from the field, to your grocery store, to your plate, I’ve put together a mini collection of photos that will hopefully make it easier to understand when I refer to “digging potatoes.”

We started digging the first of the potato crop at the end of August. Several types of machinery make it possible to harvest potatoes. Below is a picture of a potato crossover.

Behind the crossover, you can see a potato digger:

The crossover drives in front of the digger, digging, in this case, four rows of potatoes. Blades placed on the bottom go under the potato rows (below), lifting the spuds out of the ground onto a series of chains.

Potato Rows

Crossover blades

Those potatoes are carried back and then dumped on a cross chain.

Crossover chains

The cross chain then carries those four rows of potatoes to a boom that sits next to the ground, dumping them between two potato rows.

Crossover boom

The digger follows behind the crossover, picking up the potatoes the crossover piled, plus, as least two more rows of potatoes (we have both a four-row and a two-row digger). The digger is set up in much the same way. Blades enter the ground below the potatoes, picking up all six rows of potatoes (two from the digger, four from the crossover) and placing them on a series of chains.

Digger points

Main chain, digger

This chains lead to a cross chain that moves the potatoes to the elevator chain that then carries the potatoes up to the boom.

Cross chain, digger

Elevator chain, digger

From the boom, the potatoes are loaded into a truck that drives alongside the digger. The boom lifts and extends, allowing the digger operator to keep from the potatoes from dropping too far into the truck, which can bruise the spuds.



When I work during potato harvest, I drive one of the trucks, like the 10-wheeler pictured below, that goes next the digger and loads the potatoes off the boom. The second picture shows my 1/2-ton pickup parked next to the truck for scale. These trucks are big. The first time I drove I thought this must be what it’s like to drive a tank.

Ten wheeler potato truck

Ten wheeler & pickup

The pictures below show a couple of shots of a truck loading under our four-row digger (works just the two row, but picks up a total of eight rows; 4 digger + 4 crossover = 8 rows of potatoes).

Truck loading

Rear digger, loading

In the picture above, you can see dirt and vines coming the back of the digger. Each digger is equipped with a blower, the piece that extends on the right side, which helps remove field debris from the potatoes.

Once the truck is loaded, it backs into a potato cellar and unloads onto a piler. You’ll see both a piler and the outside of a cellar in the photo below. On one of our farms, we have two cellars. Both are approximately 250 feet long (not quite a football field) and 50+ feet wide. Potatoes stored in bulk require ventilation, so each cellar has an air system that keeps the cellars from overheating during the winter.

Cellar & piler

The piler, like the crossover and digger, uses a series of belts and chains to unload the potatoes from the back end of the truck (each truck is equipped with a belt and rear door to move the potatoes out of the bed). We hire a pit crew that stands at the piler to pick out vines, rot, and other debris that made it through the digger. The piler operator then creates piles of potatoes.


Piler in Cellar

So now you know what I mean when I say we dig potatoes. I’ve posted all these pictures plus some others on my Flickr account. I’d be happy to answer any questions, too.

Frankly, I owe everything I am to growing up on a farm. I learned how to work hard and how to manage a business. I also saw firsthand that even when you’ve given everything you’ve got, sometimes Mother Nature, or other forces, will smack you around just because they can. Then, you have to figure out another way. Growing up, there were definitely times I loathed living on a farm. It always meant work and more work. Now, I realize it gave me a work ethic I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.

I’m fond of this quote by Daniel Webster about farmers:

Let us not forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man. When tillage begins, other arts will follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization. (link)

I’m a big proponent of technology and the other amazing crafts that have come about. But I’m also keenly aware that if we didn’t have farmers it would be incredibly difficult to fuel ourselves in pursuit of new things. Happy harvest!



18 Responses to “Digging Potatoes”

  1. September 23, 2007 at 4:12 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Britt! I was enthralled. I couldn’t help but wonder what it SOUNDS like too. Is it really loud? And how many potatoes do you harvest? The economics of farming I find kind of fascinating, primarily through the game “Harvest Moon”.

  2. 2 Britt
    September 23, 2007 at 6:12 pm

    Dave, it’s very loud. If I get a chance, I’ll try and snag some video (only had the still-shot camera). We have just over 750 acres this year.

  3. September 23, 2007 at 6:19 pm

    My mom was raised in Aroostook County, Maine, where Maine potatoes come from. School kids in the county still get a week off for the harvest, whether or not they go to the fields any longer. This really brought me back. I went once when we were visiting my grandfather, and we went picking the field after the machines had gone through. There were TONS of potatoes left over, and we had like 8 grocery bags full without any effort. Lots of other people did the same thing, and had fresh-from-the-fields potatoes for supper for a few nights after.

    Thanks for the memories.

  4. 4 Britt
    September 23, 2007 at 7:13 pm

    Kids here get 10 days to two weeks off from school. And we still see the occasional gleaners out in the field, combing for potatoes that fell off the digger.

  5. September 23, 2007 at 7:27 pm

    Now I can’t get the image of you driving that big truck out of my head. Scary!

  6. 6 Britt
    September 23, 2007 at 7:31 pm

    It definitely makes driving anything else feel really small 🙂

  7. September 23, 2007 at 10:17 pm

    An excellent and fascinating description of the process, and thanks for all the pictures. My own memories of harvest include the very small land holdings of my grandfather and his many brothers, who mostly farmed 80 acre parcels of mixed crops and pasture for small cow herds. I practically grew up with my grandparents on their farm – our family is very close. Even now, I still see my grandmother every day. Other memories include the very large scale operation of a 10,000 head feed lot where my grandmother sold sandwiches from her little restaurant on a lunch wagon. My favorite picture from my childhood is of me at about age 7 with a family friend who let me “drive” the large pay loader there, packing silage into the bunker silo at the feed lot. If I can ever find the photo, I will try to scan it to share digitally. Thanks for the pictures and the thoughts.

  8. September 24, 2007 at 12:07 am

    I absolutely loved this Blog post. Thank you for taking the time and the effort to create it. This sort of content is sadly lacking from the net and I for one would love to see lots more about what peoples jobs actually involve. Thank you.

  9. 9 Britt
    September 24, 2007 at 6:41 am

    @Shannon: I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. And it’s really cool you could have that experience with your grandparents.

    @Nik: I appreciate the kind words. I agree that it would be amazing to know and understand more about what people do and how they do it.

  10. September 24, 2007 at 7:00 am

    So cool! A completely foreign world to me, so thanks for the details and photos. The closest I’ve ever come to “farming” was vicariously reading the Little House books. 🙂

  11. 11 Britt
    September 24, 2007 at 7:04 am

    Corrie, I thought you’d “dig” it. Bad pun, but irresistible this early in the morning. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  12. December 27, 2007 at 10:08 am

    It’s good to know that the work ethic on which this country was founded is alive and well and still digging potatoes. Great pictures. I think this should be used as some kind of learning guide for young children, i.e. “That potato in your grocery store bin didn’t grow there.”

  13. 13 Britt
    January 1, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    @CherylT: Thanks for the compliments. I remember as a young child assuming that EVERYONE was a farmer, outside of my doctor, teacher, etc. It became clear as I got older that this wasn’t the case 🙂

  14. October 8, 2008 at 6:47 am

    You’ve got to be kidding me.


    I thought Idaho being a potato state was like saying Maryland is full of blue crabs. But you really do have potatoes.

    I love the quote from Daniel Webster. In our modern world we sometimes forget the basics that have made this country great. I don’t just say that, I really mean it. We forget.

    Joel Mark Witt

  15. 15 Britt
    October 8, 2008 at 8:07 am

    @Joel: No kidding. I think one of the reasons I like the Daniel Webster quote so much comes from its reminder that everything is connected. I think we sometimes want to believe that events happen in a vacuum. To me farming is the perfect example of how things both big and small are connected in lifelong cycles.

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