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York County fields yield a lot of potatoes

Discussing field conditions.  l-r William Veach, High Rock; A. C. Tollinger, Laurel, owner of the field being discussed; R.S. Kirby, disease specialist of the State College Extension service; L.O. Thompson, New Freedom; John O. Pepper, insect specialist of the State College; and Kenneth Bowman, Fawn Grove, president of the county potato growers' association. (Gazette and Daily August 5, 1953)
Discussing field conditions. l-r William Veach, High Rock; A. C. Tollinger, Laurel, owner of the field being discussed; R.S. Kirby, disease specialist of the State College Extension service; L.O. Thompson, New Freedom; John O. Pepper, insect specialist of the State College; and Kenneth Bowman, Fawn Grove, president of the county potato growers’ association. (Gazette and Daily August 5, 1953)

We take potatoes for granted, consuming copious amounts of the fried, baked, mashed and chipped vegetable. York County growers have produced untold numbers of these staple tubers over the years.

While transcribing my father’s diaries from his farming years, I realized how much work and care went into planting, cultivating, harvesting and turning potatoes into a cash crop. In a previous post I listed the many varieties we grew on our Chanceford Township farm.

There is a entire file on local potato growing in the York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives. It includes articles on farmers who received state recognition for high production and articles on the years when heat and drought cut yields in half. There are photos of York County Potato Queens and of members of the York County Potato Growers taking whirlwind tours of other farms to learn scientific methods of fertilization and pest control. I’ll share more photos in future posts.

In the meantime, here is my recent York Sunday News column giving an overview of the importance of potatoes in 20th century York County:

When potatoes ruled in York County

Remember all those fields of York County potatoes? There are still plenty of wheat fields and corn fields, but now you see more soybeans and fewer potatoes.

Statistics are several years behind, but USDA 2007 rankings for Pennsylvania show York County first in acreage for both wheat for grain and soybeans for beans and second for corn for grain. Potatoes are no longer a separate category, and are now combined with all other vegetables, melons and sweet potatoes, together just ranking ninth in the state. In 1946 York County was third in the state for potatoes grown.

Potatoes have always been important to my family. My father kept daily dairies while farming in Chanceford Township from 1925 through 1947. They include more than 1,400 citations for potatoes. He cut, measured, planted, worked, harrowed, scraped, weeded, hoed, debugged, sprayed, raised, picked, took out, hauled in, sorted, bagged, sprouted, covered, and moved potatoes from April through November each year.

During the depression years my parents kept afloat by slicing and frying potatoes, packaging the chips in wax paper bags imprinted “Burk’s Potato Chips” and selling them to local stores, restaurants and factory workers. As the economy improved, some other York County mom and pop chip makers went on to found nationally known snack companies; mine went back to farming.

One June 7th my father noted “Baby born” in his diary [me]. That day he also: “Worked 1 Acre of potatoes, evening, second time.” Maybe that is why I’ve always been fond of potatoes. I earned my first cash picking potatoes when I about six years old. Relatives and neighbors pitched in to get the job done, sticking a little home-made numbered cardboard ticket into the frame of the 5/8 bushel basket. You would be paid a few cents for each ticket with your number. I didn’t last long on the job, but I still remember the thrill of earning those pennies by myself.

Farming changed in the 1940s; farmers had to put the horses out to pasture and invest in tractors and new machinery if they wanted to carry on. Local farmers formed the York County Potato Growers’ Association and worked with the York County Agricultural Extension office to keep up with new varieties and better methods. An August 1953 Gazette and Daily headline reads: “75 Growers Discuss Mutual Problems on Visits to 15 Farms.” The group toured annually “to see other fields, discuss mutual problems, see results of different varieties, various planting distances and fertilizer application.” They were joined by crop disease and insect specialists from Penn State Extension Service, who also presented programs at annual all-day seminars.

My father’s diary entry for July 20, 1947 reads: “Signed up to sell potatoes to Government,” referring to the farm subsidy program. In April 1947 the Gazette and Daily explained: “Gov’t Increases Potato Price Support for 1947 Program Here.” A Federal Grant would support the price of 1947’s potato crop at $2.45 per hundred pounds for U.S. Grade 1 for July and August potatoes, 35 cents higher than the 1946 crop support price. The total York County 1947 “goal” was 3,559 acres. It goes on: “It is necessary for a cooperating grower to have a ‘goal’ this year, since the price support program will be offered only to the growers who do not plant more than the acreage goal assigned them by the county committee…Letters with goals have been sent to 443 county growers, and others should notify the local office at 27 S. Duke St., York and request a goal. The government will buy potatoes at full support price, but they may be resold at lower price. Cooperators will get the support price, while non-cooperators will get market price when crops are sold. Support is not to be less than 90% of parity.”

The subsidy program resulted in large amounts of potatoes in storage. Nina Hershner of Cross Roads, the 1946-47 York County Potato Queen and Pennsylvania Potato Blossom Queen, traveled around promoting potatoes. On February 4, 1947 the Associated Press reported: “Irish Minister Says York County Potatoes Bigger than He’s Seen on Emerald Isle. York County potato blossom queen presents area grown product at Irish Legation after leaving similar gift at White House for President Truman. Irish Minister Robert Brennan received a bag of York County grown Pennsylvania Dutch Irish potatoes from Nina Hershner.” She is described as blond, attired in a “black dress, dark coat and tiny black hat,” with an “entourage including Senator Francis J. Myers (D-Pa.) at the White House and Senator Edward Martin (R-Pa.) at the Irish legation.” Champion potato growers John and Kenneth Grove of Felton went along. The article also lists Pennsylvania cities Hershner would visit since: “With farmers like the Groves growing 782 bushels [per acre] where their forebears grew only 50, the potato surplus is an economic problem that has the producers and the government concerned.”

A few years later, wholesale grocers and potato chip manufacturers blamed another government program for a scarcity of potatoes, resulting in a potato black market. The Office of Price Stabilization was formed during the Korean War to guard against hoarding and inflation. The OPS ceiling of eight cents a pound for potatoes, combined with a too low estimate of acreage for the 1951 crop under the farm subsidy program and low yield from dry weather, led to a potato shortage. Gazette and Daily headlines of May 16, 1952 read: “Potato Shortage Hurts Chip Plants: 197 employees in three area potato chip factories [Utz, El-Ge and Bon-Ton] probably will have to be laid off because of shortage.” On May 24: “Potato Boycott Voted by County Restaurant Ass’n. Directors of county group, representing 35 local restaurants, approve boycott of potatoes selling above ceiling prices, eliminates potatoes from menus until they can be purchased at prices within OPS regulations.”

Some southern farmers were selling their spring potato harvest for more than the OPS allowed. They bypassed the wholesalers, frustrating the grocers and chippers abiding by the rules. On June 3, 1952, the Gazette and Daily showed a truck parked on the Lincoln Highway near Pottery Hill with the caption: “Potatoes for Sale.” The trucker, who wouldn’t give his name, was asking $2.50 per peach basket, about 10 cents a pound. He had bought a field of potatoes a few days before in North Carolina, digging them himself. The article concluded: “No let-up in the potato shortage here.”

Local crops of potatoes eventually came in, but potato farming continues to have its ups and downs, often depending on the weather. Drought and heat can cut yield in half. New varieties and methods, however, show some promise in increasing chip-suitable production locally, while local chip manufacturers continue to slice and fry “America’s favorite snack.”

Record potato yield.  Jesse Barnett and Curvin Waltemeyer.  Gazette and Daily, September 4, 1948.
Record potato yield. Jesse Barnett and Curvin Waltemeyer. Gazette and Daily, September 4, 1948.

There has always been a lot of corn grown in York County too. Click this link to learn about York County cornhuskers.