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Crofting Agriculture
Chapter VII. Growing Early Potatoes

36. Intensification

If we are to make West Highland crofting serve as a whole-time job for a man, with the occasional help of his family, we must intensify the quality of our cultivation. That has been the theme throughout this book, for I am one who questions the oft-repeated notion that crofts should be made bigger if they are to support a family. Admittedly, if there are only one or two acres of arable land on a croft, it is not enough to get a living from, but from five to ten acres of well-worked arable land would keep a man busy if he were producing intensive crops. My experience of enlarging crofts till they are the size of small farms has been to find the standard of husbandry going down, so that before long the enlarged croft is no more profitable than were the two of which it was composed. And remember this : we deplore the depopulation of the West and yet accept the fact that our arable land is strictly limited in quantity ; therefore, enlarging crofts means still further lessening the number of families that can exist on the land. The progressive way is to intensify, so that a much larger crop can be got from a given area.

Intensification is open to those who have crofts on the western seaboard not more than a hundred feet above the sea, and should particularly be followed by crofters who have a bit of light soil in a sheltered position just above the high spring tides. The mild climate, free from early and late frosts, allows fullest working and heavy manuring of such ground. Intensification is not possible on the high inland places such as Tomintoul and the Braes of Glenlivet. Improvement should be the motto of those places rather than intensification.

I am going so far as to say that hundreds of West Highland crofts are wasting their splendid advantages by not considering early potatoes and certain market-garden produce as equal in importance to livestock rearing. There are soils on the volcanic islands such as Mull, Canna and Muck which are naturally rich, very warm and well drained, and which could grow early potatoes to reach the market in the second week of June. There are a few specially favoured spots where potatoes can be dug about 31st May. Even on this shelterless Tanera, which is the most northerly inhabited island off the West Highland mainland and quite devoid of shelter, I reckon to dig my first earlies by 21st June. The soil here is naturally poor, but plenty of seaweed and manure have brought it into grand fettle. My earlies were planted between 7th and 15th March and were of good size in the latter half of June. The crop was then about 7 to 8 tons to the acre, and I could have sold it for 16 to 18 a ton without carrying it farther than the length of my own pier. Definite reasons caused me to keep my potatoes, running them on as a main crop and lifting a much greater weight, but had there been no war, all the potatoes would have been lifted and sold by the third week of July.

One of the secrets of growing early potatoes is in getting going early in the year.

37. Choice of Seed

January is quite late enough to begin work on the year's crop of early potatoes if seed has to be got from a supplier. When you are growing them for the first time in a serious way, there may be some difficulty in getting seed potatoes of the earliest varieties early enough to allow of their being set out in sprouting or chitting boxes, so orders should be placed as soon as possible and their urgency made plain. A large proportion of seed in subsequent years would be of your own growing and could be handled at the right time.

The utmost care is necessary if early potatoes are to be a successful crop, for it must be remembered that the aim is not merely a high yield but the fact of earliness. Seven days of earliness may be worth several pounds sterling on an acre of this crop.

Let us talk of the seed then, before ever it goes into the ground. The varieties for serious consideration are few: from my own experience on Tanera, there is no need to go beyond three—Duke of York or Midlothian Early as it is also called, Arran Pilot or Epicure; but it may be found that certain other varieties may do better than these in particular places. Arran Pilot is a heavy-cropping, white-fleshed, long potato which comes as early as any. In my opinion it is inclined to be soft, but that does not matter much in earlies sold for immediate consumption. It looks very attractive when dug and is a ready seller.

My main bulk of earlies is always Duke of York : this is one of the finest potatoes ever bred because it does more than merely give a heavy crop very early ; it is of good quality from the beginning and can be run on as a main crop if it is unsold as an early. Duke of York is as firm in April as in September and does not throw out long sprouts in the pit anything like so much as many other varieties. Epicure is a good first early, but the quality is not so good as Duke of York, the eyes are rather deep and the tubers tend to be irregular in shape. The great point about Epicure is that the haulms are hardy and can stand up to four degrees of frost. When you find a good variety of early for your land, stick to it and do not bother overmuch about others, for your pitting, sprouting and marketing problems are simplified.

Even with one variety you will find yourself with several distinct lots of seed. It is my experience that new seed brought into the West does not give the best and hardiest crop in the first year. The second year finds it doing much better and it will do perfectly well for four years. The best plan, therefore, is to rely on second, third or fourth year seed for the bulk of your crop, and buy just enough new seed each year to use its crop almost wholly as seed in the second year.

The first crop which is to be gathered mainly for seed should be lifted early. Immature seed gives a bigger crop the following year than that which has been allowed to mature in the ground. But this unripe seed should not be clamped. It should be put in the sprouting boxes straight away.

38. Sprouting or Chitting

Sprouting or chitting boxes are in effect flat trays with verticle handles which allow of the boxes being stacked, and light and air to get in to each tray of seed. The boxes can be made from driftwood in winter time and should be 30 in. long by 18 in. wide, 3 in. deep and with the uprights at the ends going to 5 in. The bottoms should be slatted, to give spaces of in. If this size is too large for handling, 24 in. by 12 in. can be used and a piece nailed between the uprights so that the box can be carried in one hand.

The potatoes should lie in the boxes not much more than one layer thick, or some of the tubers will be denied the light which is so necessary in sprouting the seed. Sprouting makes for greater earliness and a bigger crop, and the practice allows the grower to take out any diseased tubers which do not show signs of sprouting. Access of light means that the sprouts come short, green and strong, very different from the long and limp streamers which have to be rubbed off potatoes coming out of the pit.

Potatoes which have been lifted before they are ripe and put into chitting boxes soon go green themselves, and in that condition are in some measure resistant to frost. But the seed should, nevertheless, be protected from frost in the barn where they are set for sprouting because it has been found that chilled seed, in which no damage can be detected, gives a reduced crop.

Early seed potatoes should not be too small, or the young plant is short of reserve food in the period it is changing over to feeding from the soil. On the other hand, there is no harm in planting big seed for an early crop. I myself have cut very large sprouted potatoes and have not noticed any significant loss of earliness, but the practice cannot generally be recommended. The ideal size for seed would be that which passes through a 1 inch riddle, but remains on the 1 inch.

I can imagine some of my crofter friends pulling me up short and saying, "Where would we have room about the buildings of a croft to put these chitting boxes? And none of our barns or byres are very light anyway." All this is true enough; I am in the same fix myself. I suggest that in those townships which would especially suit early potatoes, the crofters should in the first year or two make sure of the fact and do as best they can about sprouting, and then co-operate to build a chitting house where the seed of the whole township could be sprouted.


This is out of the West Highland area, but it is what I should think many West Highland and Hebridean crofters would consider the perfect site for a township. The ground looks clear of rocks and has an easy slope, the beach is sheltered and an easy one for hauling or launching boats, and above all, the trim pier which means ease of handling and absolute shelter inside the bend. From the crofter's point of view, a 5 cwt. crane on the quay would be a great help. Piers are too often considered merely as hitching posts for steamers. The coast looks good for lobsters and there is good line-fishing offshore. In the distance is the now deserted Isle of Roan which would have been a good enough place to live had the landing been a bit better. At least, I should have called it easy country after six years of Tanera. Perhaps the north wind makes this a hard country.

One of the large types of box holds about a third of a hundredweight of seed, which means 60 boxes to the ton or 45 boxes to the acre of crop. It is unlikely that any township would be growing more than 10 acres of early potatoes, so a chitting house for 480 boxes would be plenty big enough. Say a fairly low house was built to hold the boxes in tiers of 12, with 1 ft. 6 in. between boxes and wall all round, 6 in. between the boxes and a 4-ft. alleyway up the middle; a building 32 ft. 6 in. by 15 ft. would hold them all. Ventilation should be provided along the ridge and at the foot of the walls. If the roof were of corrugated iron there would need to be a layer of sarking below to provide better insulation.

Here, then, are our seed potatoes in the chitting boxes so that they can sprout, and in fancy we have gone the length of building a co-operative chitting house to sprout the whole early potato crop of a township so placed that in relation to elevation, nearness to the sea, soil and shelter, it was a likely place for growing this profitable crop.

The advantages of a communal chitting house over using one's own barn or byre are several : first, it is possible to exercise proper control over temperature, which should not fall below 400 F.; second, most barns are too dark and the seed must have light if it is going to grow short green sprouts, and another great thing is that in a chitting house there would be no accidents from inquisitive cows and destructive hens getting at the seed. (One of my cows recently cleared a whole hundredweight and never turned a hair!) One man in the township would make himself responsible for periodically moving round the boxes of potatoes and for supervising the ventilation. Fumigation of the chitting house each autumn with nicotine before the seed is put in should be done as a matter of course, so that none of the numerous fungoid diseases of potato would be harboured.

39. Cultivation

Now for cultivation, manuring and planting. This is a crop beyond all others which responds in earliness and yield to good preparation and heavy manuring. It is not usual in the West Highlands to do any autumn ploughing, and there is usually a sound reason for this in the heaviness of the winter rainfall and the fact that we do not get enough frost to help make tilth in autumn-ploughed furrow-slices set up high. We can get our tilth easily enough in late winter if we take advantage of a fine spell in February. A dressing of 12 to 15 tons to the acre of farmyard manure should be carted on to the ground at that time and ploughed in as deep as possible. The alternative to dung would be 20 tons of seaweed, but better still would be a mixture of the two, composted together during the winter. The value of seaweed in potato growing is that this manure contains a goodly proportion of potash.

Artificial manures are also necessary if the best chance is to be given the crop. The early potato districts of Ayrshire, Lancashire and the Channel Islands often use 10 to 12 cwt. of artificials per acre, in addition to the farmyard manure, but in our West Highland conditions I should limit the quantity to 8 cwt., made up of 2 cwt. of sulphate of ammonia, 4 cwt. superphosphate and 1 cwt. muriate of potash. If dung has been replaced by seaweed, I should drop cwt. sulphate of ammonia and cwt. muriate of potash—7 cwt. in all. Potato manure can now be bought ready mixed, but crofters are advised to purchase it co-operatively through some organization like the Crofters' Supply Agency, which is Government-sponsored and non-profit-earning.

The mixed artificials should be sown in the drills before planting, and planting should be done by two people together direct from the chitting boxes. Movement of the seed might break the sprouts. Plant as early in March as possible.

After-cultivation does not differ much from the treatment of main-crop potatoes. Planting should not have been too deep, and earthing-up should be done early. Spraying should not be necessary as the blight season hardly starts before digging is in progress.

Finally, the dug crop should be sorted and cleaned so that the buyers will have no cause to complain of the quality of the West Highland product. I do not advise crofters to go headlong into this specialized branch of potato growing, but when so many crofts are suited to the crop, I should like to see a lot of quarter-acre trial plots this coming spring. After that we can consider further development. Remember, the profit is in the earliness, and it would be wise to arrange for marketing some time ahead of digging, or days worth good money may be lost.

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