Field Day

Had the opportunity to spend a good part of Saturday on the Royal slope, local for the Royal City area of the Columbia Basin, but this outing was about potatoes rather than grapes.

Icicles in the apple orchard didn't disappear until late afternoon.
Icicles in the apple orchard didn’t disappear until late afternoon.

When we left the house the temperatures were in the mid-thirties, but the forecast was for mid-fifties.  Our 45-minute drive was scenic with the various shades of green peaking through the fields and the icicles hanging in the orchards.  Irrigating the trees through the freezing night temperatures helps preserve the buds that will eventually become the fruit we purchase.

We arrived, an hour after the start-up of the new planter was scheduled, to see it still beside the field.  Not a good sign.  Thankfully we were able to spend our time fruitfully while waiting; I will expand upon my first ever experience in a dairy soon.

Machine planted. Look closely, see the potatoes evenly spaced in the ditch?
Machine planted. Look closely, see the potatoes evenly spaced in the ditch?
Checking the spacing of the newly planted potatoes.
Checking the spacing of the newly planted potatoes.

It was after lunch, which we grabbed from a grocery store in Royal City, when the planter progressed into the field. We were no longer wearing jackets, but the spring wind was chiding us for trusting with gusts that brought on attacks of goose bumps. Attached to a tractor with GPS this behemoth should plant straight, parallel rows of potatoes at regular intervals in ridges that make the field look like fine whaled corduroy allowing full use of the acres planted and crop minimal loss during harvest.

During my first airplane ride during the day (many years ago) I had observed the consistent planting of fields north to south as I flew over Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas.  To find the answer to my ‘why is this’ I took a Geography class and discovered that farmers are so savvy!  They plant the rows to provide their own erosion control.  Wind and water are powerful and that wonderful, nutrition-rich soil needed to produce good crops, is highly susceptible to both.  With that tidbit of knowledge, I didn’t question why the planter was making such short passes at the near end of the field, rather than making long rows with less turns.  But, oh, what a fiasco we beheld as the rows emerged behind the green machines.  Not exactly what was expected:

Not straight enough!
Not straight enough!

Being the only non-farm-bred person in that field some of the lingo was foreign; as with a truck, car or other more common machine, there are adjustments and changes that can be made to rectify the issue.   There are so many things to consider when there is a problem, but watching these people dive right in and tweak this or that was impressive.

Planting straighter, see the four ridges?
The underside of the Lockwood Aircup Planter being pulled by a John Deere tractor.
The underside of the Lockwood Aircup Planter being pulled by a John Deere tractor.

Another attempt was better and the row was completed, the turn made and another row in.  There are larger machines, six and eight row planters, but this one is a four-row: four rows of potatoes are planted with each pass through the field.  There are wider tracks between those four rows for the tires of the tractor and the harvester that will remove the crop from the ground in the Autumn.  Pretty ingenious, no?

Still not quite right, more changes were made.  Discussion about the weight of the machine full of seed potatoes vs empty, tire pressure and soil structure ensued.  Apparently the machine itself wasn’t causing the problems now.  Being mid-afternoon and having an evening commitment, we left the field.  Follow-up gave the word that with more air in the tires the field is planted; no more wavy rows to embarrass a self-respecting farmer.

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