The Sweet Potato on the Eastern Shore of Virginia


It has been said that but for rice the Chinese as a people and nation could scarcely exist; and it can with equal truth be said that but for thesweet potato the Eastern Shore of Virginia and its people would not be by far what they are to-day. It has not only brought comforts, luxuries, wealth and population, but to it more than to all other resources combined perhaps is due the present enviable social, moral, and intellectual position of the people of this section. It has brought the money, and the money has made all of these other facts and conditions possible.

This little yellow tuber, hid away amidst its own foliage in the fields, unpretentious and unattractive though it be in appearance, yet upon it rests the welfare and prosperity of these people. It enhances all values, builds the highways, railroads, vessels, steamboats, stores, school-houses, churches, and homes of this country. It pays the teachers in the schools, the ministers in the pulpits, and the lawyers at the bar. It is the creator of banks and bankers, doctors and lawyers, preachers and teachers, and all trades and conditions of men are dependent upon it. It heals the sick, feeds the hungry and clothes the naked, and blesses all the land. It is true that this land is greatly favored in other natural advantages -- its oysters, its fish, its fruit, its soil and its climate, all of which contribute to make this the favored spot of the country; but it cannot be denied that the sweet potato is the keystone to the arch upon which almost all else rests.

The sweet potato as an article of food for the inhabitants here has been cultivated for many years, but it was not until about the year 1835 that it begun to assume any commercial importance, corn and oats at that time, and until after the war, being the staple and money crop of the country. But the digging of the canals and the extension of the numerous railroads from the sea coast into the rich lands of the West so cheapened these commodities in the Eastern markets that the people here were compelled to abandon their cultivation as a source of revenue and to look to other products for that purpose. Of all of these which up to the present time our people have tried, the sweet potato has proven by far the most reliable and the most profitable. From a few bushels sent to market in 1835 the output has grown into the millions. From the "patches" holding a few hundreds of plants at that period have grown the "fields" of to-day, many of which contain a quarter of a million of plants. From the slow-going sail vessel of that time, upon which they were sent to market, has grown the many docks built on every river and creek for their handling, the railroads, and the many capacious steamboats for their carrying. From the few dollars then constituting the entire annual receipts from this source has grown the millions that now annually flow into the lap of these people. Then there were only three markets to which these potatoes were carried and sold -- Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore; now they are shipped direct all over the land from Maine to Mexico, from Baltimore to San Francisco, as well as across the ocean to Europe. Its growing importance as an article of food can be estimated by the yearly increased demand and its ever-widening range of distribution and consumption. Wherever it has been introduced, there it remains, and ever grows in popularity, not only as a delicacy, but also as one of the prime necessities for the table. Wherever the housewives of the country have become acquainted with the varied and delightfully toothsome possibilities that lie hidden beneath the "golden jacket" of a "Virginia sweet," there is its merits fully appreciated and its popularity ever growing.

No vegetable ever had to contend so for a position in the commercial world and for a place upon the tables of the country as has the sweet potato. It has encountered ignorance everywhere, from the grower to the cook. It has been planted by people in bogs, in hard, red clay, and in the deep, alluvial soils of the West, and disappointment and disgust has been the fitting reward of their ignorance. But the cooks of the country ever have been and are to-day its worst enemies. By every conceivable method have they attacked and robbed this tuber of its attractiveness and of its valuable and delightful qualities. They have peeled it, and drowned it, and boiled it, until it was nothing but a sodden, sticky, nauseating mass of insipid pulp, and they are doing just this same thing with it all over the North and West to-day, and this by the highest priced "chef" in the finest hotel as well as by the housewife in the hillside cottage, notwithstanding she pays 60 cents a peck for them; and yet it survives this murderous treatment and grows in popularity everywhere. The potato roasted in the ashes or in the oven with its "jacket" on; the potato sliced thin and quickly baked to a light-brown and served hot with butter; the rich and golden potato pie; the hot and crisp potato biscuit and the delicious potato custard, are all unknown to these murderous cooks of the North and West. What a wonderful change would be wrought by good cooking in the present position of the sweet potato in the markets and in the homes of these sections! With an Eastern Shore cook in every household there, the sweet potato would take those sections by storm; the supply would not half equal the demand. To enjoy a sweet potato in its perfection, it should be grown in the right soil, handled in the right way, and cooked by the right cook. Scarcely any vegetable is more fastidious as to its bed in which to grow than the yellow sweet. It will not grow in close and hard clay lands, nor in cold, wet lands, and in the deep, rich, alluvial lands of the country the vine will grow luxuriantly, but the roots or tubers will be almost as long and as worthless as the vines themselves. A red clay subsoil, upon which rests a light, friable, lemon-colored loam only a few inches in depth, is the ideal home for the perfect potato. It is true that enormous crops of them are annually grown in soils of entirely different character, but these never attain perfection in color or in quality, nor ever sell for the highest market prices. Pipe-clay subsoil, under a rich black loam, is the most productive potato lands in the country, some of these lands yielding a barrel of marketable roots to every fifty hills. In exceptional instances a dozen hills have been known to fill a flour barrel. One grower here (Mr. R. J. Bell), who plants this kind of land, usually averages in good seasons a barrel of potatoes for every fifty plants throughout his field, or about 600 bushels to the acre. The up-lands are not so productive, a barrel to a hundred plants being considered a good yield, but the quality is much superior and the market value greater.

From the primitive roast potato of seventy-five years ago to the potato biscuit and delicious custard of to-day is a long stride in the cooking and serving of this tuber for human food; but great as this progress is, it is no greater than that made in the methods of its cultivation, handling, and marketing from those now in vogue. In those days a whole potato of the pre-vious year's growth was planted in each hill. This old potato grew along with the new ones which originated from the plants it threw up, and often attained an enormous size, frequently weighing as much as ten or fifteen pounds. The plow and the hoe were all the implements then known in its cultivation. The next step made in its propagation was in cutting the whole potato in several parts, putting a piece in each hill as is now done with the round potato. This method was succeeded by that of putting all of the seed potatoes together in a bed. This bed was made by digging a pit in the ground about eighteen inches in depth and of varying width and length, according to the number of plants required. This pit was filled with manure from the stables, and on this was put a layer of rich earth about three inches in thickness. Upon this earth the seed potatoes were placed very close together. These were covered with a layer of loam or sand, and this in turn by "pine shats," or straw, about thirty inches in depth. Upon these were placed heavy weights of logs or boards to hold the heat generated beneath and which caused the potatoes to sprout and grow. After the sprouts appeared above the second layer of earth, all of this covering had to be removed every morning and replaced every cold night. The covering of straw and pine shats was, after many years' use, abandoned in favor of oil-cloth spread over the beds upon a frame-work of narrow boards. This cloth was made by saturating common "domestic" with linseed oil. This was a great improvement over the straw and "shats." The next progressive step was the use of glass in place of the oil-cloth. The latter method is now in general use all over the Shore, though we occasionally see an "oil-cloth bed" as we ride the roads in spring-time. These beds are made upon the same principles as were the original "pine shat" beds, except that glass is used to aid in the generation and retention of the heat necessary to the germination and development of the plants. These "glass" beds are often very extensive, sometimes being seen in groups on a farm as much as a quarter of a mile in length, if they were put one on to the end of the other. The sash used is generally home-made, and is about 8 feet in length by 3 1/2 feet in width, and each contains about three rows of 6x8 inch "lights." Each of these "frames" or sash is expected to hold or to cover one bushel of seed potatoes, and from this a good bed is expected to yield a thousand "sprouts." A great amount of care and labor are expended upon these beds, for upon them rests the fate of the farmer and his family for the year, so far as money supply is concerned. Great care is exercised in selecting good seed. The seed used generally are what is known here as "slips" -- that is, seed grown from vine cuttings. The earth used in bedding these seed is carefully selected, so that it shall be as free from weed and other noxious seeds as possible. These glass beds require constant attention to insure an abundance of healthy plants. They are usually "put down" about the 1st of March, and during extremely cold weather are carefully "chinked," and often artificial means are employed to prevent freezing. During sunny days the evaporation in the beds is very great, and the "frames" are removed every few days and the earth sprinkled with water until it is saturated throughout. This process is kept up after every "drawing" and until no more sprouts are needed.

The "raising" of the manure necessary for these potato fields involves a vast amount of labor and expense. For this reason, under present methods,the Eastern Shore trucker is hard at work from Christmas until Christmas comes again; he literally has no respite from his labors. A thousand loads of "pound" manure or compost is about the average number required by the average "trucker." The preparation and application of this vast bulk of stuff employs nearly all of his time and team when not engaged in the cultivation or the marketing of his crop. This ancient and expensive system is now, however, being partially abandoned in favor of green manuring. Green manuring, however much it may lessen the expense of a crop, will hardly supersede entirely the older and more expensive system, for the reason that "forward" potatoes -- the money-getters -- cannot be grown as successfully by it; the vine grows luxuriantly, but the tuber fails to develop as early. Commercial manures are used quite extensively of late years in the growth of the sweet potato here, and when of the right elements are very valuable aids to the growth of the plant and early maturity of the tuber. They should be composed chiefly of phosphoric acid-potash and a small proportion of ammonia. Common salt is often used with wonderful results on "fresh" land, about 400 pounds to the acre being the usual application. Great pains is taken in the manuring and preparation of the land for this crop. The plowing is usually very shallow. This method has a tendency to shorten the growth of the "roots," as when they encounter the hard, unbroken subsoil their growth downward is retarded, which causes them to "round up" and to reach a marketable stage much earlier than they otherwise would. The land is first plowed very early in the spring and laid off in checks about 18 feet square with a plow. If the land is very poor, the checks are made smaller. This is to regulate the dropping and spreading down of the manure. The manure being spread, repeated plowings and harrowings follow, until the land is thoroughly pulverized and the manure well mixed with the soil. The land is then at the proper season, "laid out" with a one-horse plow in rows about thirty inches apart if for a "drill" patch, and about twenty-four inches apart if for a "hill patch," and the fertilizer sown down these rows. This is then covered with a three-furrowed list, these lists laid off with a marker if for drill planting, and the land is ready for the sprouts.

Before "sprouting time" the glass frames are usually raised several inches on one side of the bed, or taken off entirely in good weather a few days before the plants are to be "drawn," so that they may be "hardened" by this exposure.

If the beds have been properly attended to, the sprouts should be ready for transplanting to the fields about the 1st of May. The crop from these plants should be ready for digging and marketing about the last of July or in three months from the "setting." These early "drawings" are the money-getters of the Eastern Shore truckers. Five or six dollars per barrel are often received for them at the wharves or stations, and every farmer is eager to dig just as soon as they will "bear it." The drawing of the plants requires great care, and this is usually done by the most careful "hands." The stems should not be crushed between the fingers in drawing, and all "black shanks," or diseased plants, should be thrown out. The plants are carried to the fields and dropped at every mark on the drills -- by boys generally; these are immediately followed by the "sprouters" with trowels, who carefully set the plant, pressing the earth firmly about it with the handsbut if the ground is dry and watering is necessary, men follow the "sprouters" with water pots, from which is poured about a half gill of water around each plant. These men are followed in turn by others who "fill up" -- that is, cover the water with a little earth about each plant. The plants having been set, the chief object now to be sought is the keeping of the grass and weeds "down," for sweet potatoes will not thrive amidst the one or the other. This object is generally accomplished at present without the use of the hoe, as was formerly thought to be indispensable. It is only when the grass becomes well set about the plants that the hoe is resorted to. To prevent this it is necessary to stir the ground by harrows or cultivators every six or eight days in damp or wet weather. Improved and specially designed cultivators do the work nicely, always throwing a little earth on or around the plants. These cultivators are followed by men who uncover all plants and pull out all grass or weeds that may have appeared near the plants. This process is kept up until the foliage becomes dense enough to prevent of itself the growth of all grass or weeds, it being necessary to turn the vines out of one row into the other during the last workings. In harvesting the crop the old-fashioned method of digging them with a hoe is still extensively practiced, especially by the smaller growers; larger ones use plows of special design. These cut the vines and turn up the roots as they go. This is a more rapid, better, and cheaper process than is the use of the hoe.

Marketing the crop to advantage when grown has been a rather more difficult job to the trucker than was the growing of it. He had to contend with all sorts of "sharpers" everywhere, both at home and in the cities where his product was sent to be sold. The organization of the "Produce Exchange" by the leading farmers of the Shore has in a great measure relieved the situation in this respect. The "Exchange" now takes charge of the farmer's stuff when it reaches a wharf or a depot, either by outright purchase on the spot, or by shipping it for him to its chosen agents in the markets of the country. The Exchange during the season just closed handled nearly a million dollars' worth of produce for the farmers. It has its agents at every station and at every wharf on the peninsula and in every great market of the country to take care of the farmer and his produce. It has proven itself the greatest boon ever brought to the Eastern Shore truckers. In the short period of its existence, it has already saved them tens of thousands of dollars, and if loyally supported by them will save them hundreds of thousands, and in the no distant future.

The Sweet Potato on the Eastern Shore of Virginia
Farm Credit Administration
Washington, D. C.
pp. 117 - 122