The garden fork plunges into the dark soil, the yellow-green plant tops dancing as he lifts it from the earth. For a moment things seem hopeful, with the crop appearing to be whole, firm and yellow-white against the soil. But then he looks more closely and realises that what he hoped was a clod of clay-earth stuck fast to the potato skin was in fact a mouldy, cankerous sore. The second potato, the third, the fourth, all have the same infection and they look revolting. He has hopes that it may just be the one plant, so goes to another, only to find that it looks the same. What is worse, small burrowing grubs are eating away at this particular tuber, making it inedible twice over.
This was the scene in my garden as I removed, bagged and binned my potato crop to try and remove the blight. We, of course, have grocer’s stores and good old Tesco’s to turn to in order to obtain whatever potatoes we desire and do not rely on our land for food. But my experiences with my own meagre potato growing attempts made me wonder what it would have been like at the beginning of the Irish potato famine.
I wonder what the first Irish farmer would have felt when lifting potatoes from the earth to find a blighted mess rather than an edible crop. Before the famine hit, before he would have realised how big a disaster potato blight would be, what would he have thought on inspecting his crops? Would he have known it was potato blight? What would he have named the problem? How would he have described it? And would he try and re-plant carefully saved seed potatoes in infected soil in the hope that it was a one-time problem, or would they have been eaten before a second year’s crop could be attempted?
Blight is disappointing and annoying to the modern gardener or allotment grower. It requires either a plan to grow different crops for the next few years, or the purchase of preventative fungicides and resistant strains along with a keen eye for blight signs on the top growth. It requires bowing to the supermarkets rather than enjoying the fruits of your own labours, and a few bin bags or barrow loads of yellowed, manky vegetation either slipped in with your household rubbish or piled onto your autumn bonfire.
If you are a farmer, it may at the very worst involve selling property and going to the local jobcentre to look for alternative employment that doesn’t require you to battle with fickle Mother Nature on a daily basis. Even at its worst it is no longer a harbinger of famine, disease and death.
But once it was and even now the after affects of the devastating blight problems that caused the Irish famine can still be seen if you know where to look. Many of the UK’s seed potato stockists still, after all this time and with all the modern technological advances in fungicides and selective breeding of the strains and crops, are still prevented from sending seed potatoes to growers in Ireland.
I, of course, in southern Scotland, can purchase and plant whatever seed potatoes I wish. But blight bites hard and I am not going to grow spuds, of whatever variety or resistance, directly in the soil for a few years at the very least. The last 2 days were disappointing enough.