Sorting, Classifying and the Heartbreak of Wasting Food

By Cam Mather

I waste a lot of food. I guess we all do when you read some of the studies that analyze how much food ends up being wasted. (There’s good article here about the subject;

http://www.emagazine.com/magazine/wasted)

But it seems to be worse for me, because it’s so in my face. There are the cauliflowers that are going brown in the garden because I missed the window to harvest them. There are the radishes that went to seed 2 days after they were at their prime, or the beets that are the size of small pumpkins and way past their best before date.

It’s also because we can’t possibly use or save everything that we grow. This year has been better because we were selling at the market, so we got a little more efficient in terms of harvesting and using stuff. At the end of each market day I would gather up the leftovers and drop some extras in to my best customers.

It’s fall now and absolutely the best time of year here. The bugs are gone, and the days are cool. I’m always amazed at how much more I can accomplish when heat doesn’t drain my energy. Our onions are harvested and drying on racks in the horse barn. We’re just about sold out of garlic. We’re gathering the squash and getting ready to put them into the root cellar. And I spend a great deal of my time harvesting potatoes.

I love potatoes. I think I could be a potato-tarian. If I could take just one food to a desert island, it would be potatoes. And I’m not alone. The United Nations declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato because: “The potato produces more nutritious food more quickly, on less land, and in harsher climates than any other major crop—up to 85 percent of the plant is edible human food, compared to around 50 percent in cereals.” What I take from this is that even if you don’t have great soil, potatoes allow to you to maximize the nutrition you get out of the soil by producing a healthy, long- lasting source of food energy. The fact that they keep so well with almost no energy inputs make them the perfect food for the future.

Here’s what I wrote about them in my book “The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook:”

“Potatoes have more protein than human breast milk, and since our protein needs are greatest when we’re newborns and are doubling our weight every six months, it’s obvious that we can get all the protein we need from a potato. The amino-acid pattern of the protein in a potato is well matched to what humans need. Potatoes are very rich in many minerals and vitamins, providing one-fifth of our daily potassium requirement, and are particularly high in vitamin C. A single medium-sized potato contains about half the recommended daily intake of vitamin C, so if you’re having a crisis of conscience about that morning glass of orange juice that’s trucked from the south to your breakfast table, don’t worry; the potato has you covered.”

So if I had to, I could live on potatoes. And I grow them exceptionally well. Anyone should be able to grow them well, that’s the beauty of them. And best of all, once you invest in the seed stock, you just hold some back each year, and you’ve got your seed potatoes for next year that don’t cost you a penny. Potatoes are cheap at the store, but mine are free (and organically grown), so you can’t beat that.

The downside of potatoes of course is that they’re heavy. Let me rephrase that. The great thing about potatoes is that they make for a great workout when you’re handling them. So I will usually dig two or three rows, fill up the wheelbarrow, and then get them ready for storage. I find one wheelbarrow full a day is usually enough for my back.

I separate out the best potatoes to store long term, and I set aside the rougher looking ones, with some scab or a spot that looks like it might turn bad, and I use them up in the fall. I store the good ones in plastic buckets and put peat moss around them. If I was a good environmentalist I’d use sawdust or dried sand from my property, but peat moss is dry and light. Our “root cellar” is actually the old cistern under the kitchen. It’s a perfect spot. It stays close to freezing but never goes below, and has high humidity. My vegetables store quite well down there, but to get to it, I have to lower myself through a trap door in the pantry off the kitchen. Everything has to be lifted down into it. I used to use sand but it is just too heavy for me.  It was bad enough lowering those heavy buckets of potatoes and sand down into the cistern but even worse, by spring some of that “dry” sand in the buckets had absorbed some moisture. It’s one thing to lift them down it into the cistern. It’s whole other thing to lift them out. It’s like the clean and jerk you see weight lifters doing in the Olympics, only with buckets of sand.

This year there’s been another reason to sort my potatoes. I’m actually going through them to pick out the best ones to sell. I want the skins to have as few blemishes and scabs on them as possible. I’m sure this is easy to accomplish when you are using pesticides and herbicides and lots of other chemicals to grown your potatoes. I don’t use any those things on my potatoes and so some of them aren’t very pretty.

So this is my new fall past time, sitting at my wheelbarrow sorting and classifying potatoes. It makes me feel closer to my daughters. I always remember watching Michelle, who was an exceptional teacher and then homeschooled our girls for six years, working with the girls when they were young on sorting and classifying. And they graduated from university, so this apparently is good from my Dr. Pepper-addled brain.

As I work my way through the wheelbarrow I always start with the biggest ones, and eventually what’s left is pretty small. And my back has usually had enough by then. And the reality is, I’m not going to stand at the kitchen sink all winter cleaning puny little potatoes. I always end up with a few boxes of very small potatoes. I can’t offer them to friends, because then it looks like I’m unloading my crap on them. There’s not enough to take them to a food bank and I’m sure it would look bad too.

My Grandmother would love them. She loves my potatoes! And she has the time to clean them. The problem is she lives 5 hours away. And I don’t think it would be economical to ship them. Suddenly they’d be worth 10 times the going price.

So this fall, as most falls, many small potatoes will find themselves in my compost. We did have someone comment on a blog about how they put their potatoes peels on the woodstove in the winter and once they soften up, feed them to the chickens. Right now when we let the chickens out of their pen they feast on grasshoppers. That won’t last much longer, so this year maybe I’ll hold onto the small potatoes and see if we can figure out a zero-carbon way to prepare them for the chickens. I’m concerned their diet is going to get pretty boring in the winter, so it looks like maybe these baby potatoes might be the solution!

9 Responses to “Sorting, Classifying and the Heartbreak of Wasting Food”

  • Cathy:

    I have joined a co-op to cut out the middle men. Check out Bountiful Baskets.com It is spreading across the USA and it works. I get 2 laundry baskets full of produce.

  • $1 a lb sounds cheep to me. My local store charges $1.69 and sometimes they are on sale for as low as 59cents but that is for the regular not organic potatoes and it doesn’t happen often. As far as the potato beetle I have never seen one. Yet. Maybe that’s because I live in Western Washington?

  • Lawrence Walker:

    Meaning to move my garden to a sunnier spot and because it was a late spring, I reduced my garden this year and didn’t put in any potatoes. They had been cheaper for a while, but recently when I went to buy some they were once again, even tho imported from other areas of the country, $5.00 for a 5 lb bag. At the end of August. I declined and will see if I can find a local grower,many of whom were selling last year at $5.00 for a 20 lb bag. It’s ludicrous how the retail distributers are ripping off both the consumers and the producers.

  • Lawrence Walker:

    I moved from T.O. to my natal area of central Manitoba upon my retirement in 2001 after visiting with my elder sister there in 2000. I bought a wonderful house well-built in 1901 at an unbelievably low price on a double lot 100’x100′. It needed work but the structure was fine. I knew I could never afford a house in Toronto and with the increasing costs of rent, I would have problems surviving on my pension. After a certain amount of work, I made the house habitable. Locally it was known as “the glass house” because of it’s many windows. But few on the northside. The basement had about 3′ of water in it since the owners had cut off the electricity, which meant there was no functioning sump-pump. The roof leaked.
    I pumped out the basement, refurbished the electric furnace, and replaced most of the window-glass, including the storm windows. The first winter I had high heating costs which I have since reduced by 50%. I received a free grant for seniors some years later for new roofing and eavestrough. It still needs a new coat of paint but it’s value even in this small rural town has increased 30ty-fold. I rescued the carigana hedges after 50 years or so of neglect and they are now a town pride.

    I was brought up out here during the tail-end of the 30’s depression, when everyone had a garden. My father even had a cow at one time which he grazed on the railway land. Most townspeople also had a chicken coop, for eggs and meat, and an icehouse filled with sawdust, in which you could unearth ice even at the end of August.

    I was amazed when I moved here that so few of the younger townspeople had a garden. They seemed to act like they were living in some city suburb. Livestock such as poultry are prohibited in the town (I often wonder how these rural folk emulating city culture, comprehend the recent allowance of poultry in such cities as New York and T.O.)
    I was also shocked during my first visit that potatoes were selling in the foodstore for $1.00 a lb, while in T.O. they were selling for 20 cents a lb.. One of they first things I planted after having a garden plot turned was to plant potatoes. I had forgotten much about gardening after so many years in the city and re-discovered colorado potato beetles, which were not mentioned in any of the above posts. I saw they were eating the foliage and flicked them off the first year. Even tho I moved the location the second year there were still many. On the 3rd year after seeing only a few, I went out and found my plants virtually covered with baby beetles. I freaked, went down to the Hardware store and bought a powdered insecticide. It helped for a while, but they came back with a vengeance. The plants were totalled but I still had a much reduced crop of tubers.
    The next year an elder local told me “Just pick them off and squish them”. I couldn’t deal with squishing them in my fingers so I flicked them into a can and vindictively put them in an acid bath. It worked and I remove any beetles on an inspection each day, flicking them into a can and squishing them with my foot.

  • Love potatoes! I love the color, the flavor, and how easy they are to grow! They are very satisfying to look at in the garden because they make you feel like a gardener that knows what they are doing. I happen to grow them in “potato towers” which works like a charm, saves space in my garden, expands the garden space for the next year and adds good stuff to the soil. See my blog post from last year for pictures at http://welcometothehenhouse.blogspot.com/2011_03_06_archive.html to see how I did it. In a nutshell I use small raised beds lined with straw and filled with soil and planted seed potatoes. I plant 3 to 5 potatoes per tower and I have been getting 5 to 10 lbs. at harvest. Plus I found that I can plant them outside the fenced garden and the deer leave them alone. Since I plant them on top of the existing soil the grass underneath dies leaving a nice new clear planting spot for something else next year. Kind of like Cams bales of hay method but on a smaller more manageable size for me. I admit I sometimes dig down through the native soil inside the tower but it isn’t necessary. I also make sure I mix native soil and the compost I bring in but the straw used to build up the sides makes a great composted soil in itself which is great since I have a very sandy soil. See my current blog of Sept. 11th (6th paragraph down)to see how this worked this year. http://welcometothehenhouse.blogspot.com/2011_09_11_archive.html THESE POTATOES WERE THE YUMMIEST!!!

  • Karla:

    Gee, I was just thinking of the exorbitant price the supermarkets charge for tiny potatoes! They’re so “gourmet”!

  • Neil:

    With encouragement from your book and DVD, last year I grew spuds for the first time… as I wrote on a few occasions in my blog, they were my favourite vegetable: versatile, love the taste, and growing them is like magic… you put down one, keep a watch for bugs, and a few months later they have multiplied four- or fivefold!

  • Cathy:

    Compost is not waste, it is repurposing fiber, water and nutrients.
    You could get a pig and repurpose small potatoes as pig food. I think I have read that you are vegetarians. Rescue a pig and repurpose it as a manure making compost pile cultivator. It could spread the hay bales and prepare your new garden areas over the winter. Most 4 legged critters could do this for you.

    Or you could also tumble your baby potatoes in a 5 gallon bucket. Fill with micro/baby potatoes to 3″ from the top. Add water half way up, add 1/2+ cup rock salt. Snap on a water tight lid, lay it on its side and roll it across the yard. Pushing it with your foot is easy on the back. It will clean them or peel them, depending on how much you enjoy doing it. This works for all root vegetables.

    The rolling bucket also works for making small batches of cement for post holes, a camping washing machine for laudry, whatever needs tumbling. My mantra is first reuse, or repurpose and then consider recycling. We choose not to have garbage service pick up. If anything has to go to the dump, we have to take it, so we find uses for most everything or we only plant/buy what we need.

    I am also a gleener. I would take your free “seconds” and get out my canning equipment and make something delicious for an easy meal in the winter. I take what the food bank refuses. I just finished making 40# of Ginger Spice Beets from free wilted beets. I used that bucket to soak/reconstitute them over night, then tumble-clean them.

  • I agree – wasting food is a great no-no and we also take great care to plan our meals and shop accordingly so there’s little that goes to the compost at our place. And you’re right about potatoes; I’ll eat them anyway I can get them.

    gerrit and antoinette

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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