Friday, June 30, 2006

I am quitting potatoes…

I have had enough of dealing with growing potatoes. Yes I love fried potatoes very much, probably my favorite food in the world, but really, I am so sick of trying to grow potatoes I simply wish to quit.

Yesterday I had to do one of the intermediate plowings necessary if you want to receive decent potatoes. In this case you must take a special two sided plow called s soshka and go between the rows of potatoes. You do this because potatoes are grown best in hills and if you have a lot of potatoes, using a horse is (supposedly) far easier than doing it by hand. But in order for us to do this, we must first procure a horse and this means getting off the bus about a mile early from our normal stop and walking from there over to the KolHoz (collective ownership) and sitting and wait for Luba. Luba is the woman from whom you can take a horse but of course she wasn’t there so figuring I could at least save a little time, I decided to get the horse now, and then sign him out after she got there.

The horses though were feeding another half a mile away, across this wheat. I marched over there and found Kolia, the guy who watches the horses in the morning, lying on his back at the edge of the wheat field sleeping.

“Working?” I shouted to him. He jumped up on his feet.

“I only lay down for a minute.”

“It’s ok, the weather is really nice. I need a horse.”

“Plowing potatoes?” He asked. I nodded.

“Now listen, I haven’t got my paper because Luba was not in her shack yet. But I will only take the horse there to the shack to wait. I won’t leave until I get the paper.”

Well of course Kolia has to start in on me about not letting me take a horse if I hadn’t a paper saying that I could. I had borrowed a horse from him one time without and he had taken a scolding from Luba for this. He really wasn’t interested in any more scoldings. “You don’t want to get Luba angry at you.” He had said and I knew he meant this seriously. I told him again that I was not taking the horse right away, I was just taking the horse back to the shack to wait for Luba to get there so I would not have to march back and forth again with the paper. This was reasonable enough but he said that he would go and wait with me.

So now we had to find a horse. After looking around he told me I ought to take an old black and brown to do the plowing. I looked over the black and brown horse and thought he was a bit on the skinny side and when I looked closer, I saw he also had an obvious infection in the eyes. He was not as bad as the last horse they gave me; at least he didn’t have any running sores over his shoulders.

“Does he work?” I asked.

“He works…”

“It looks as though he has an infection in his eyes.”

“That may be. You want the horse?”

“Can I pick another?”

“These are all young. They don’t know anything. Five sotoc is nothing. He can do it.”

I understood that there wouldn’t be any other horses so I undid the twisted nylon rope that tied the horse’s two front legs together and placed it around his neck for a collar and started to pull him along. He came with me but was walking at a really slow pace. “Why is this horse so slow? I think he is sick.”

“He’ll work, he’ll work. Take him.” I picked up a length of string which I found in the field and tied it to the collar to make a long leash and slung it over my shoulder and started to pull the horse along. At the end of the wheat field I saw Tanya waiting for me. She saw me lugging the slow horse along and laughed.

“This isn’t a horse it’s an ass. And so am I for doing this”

“Luba is there on the place.” She said.

“Well good, let’s go.” I was carrying our money in my bike bag so I took 5000 rubles an gave it to Tanya to pay for the horse with. There were several guys from the village sitting around by the shack waiting for work. I wished everyone good health.

“Are you plowing your potatoes?” This was Pete of the Yevgeiny and Pete drinking club I have written about several times.

“I am trying to.”

“That is a very skinny horse.”

“Thank you. I could see that.” He smiled at me. “He is skinny, he is old and his eyes are bad. This is what they game me.” Pete laughed at this.

“Don’t worry, he’ll work.” Cried Kolia.

“Kolia, why did you give him such an old horse?”

“He only has five sotoc to plow. The horse will work.”

“Who is going to plow for you?” This was Giorgi, a retiree and a super nice man.

“I’ll do it myself.”

“You know how?”

“I have it. This is not technical work.” Some people laughed.

“Everybody in America knows how to plow,” Said Pete. Everybody laughed. Tatyana came from the shack and told me in English that Luba would not take her money.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. Maybe she will take it later and only take what time we pay for.”

I said goodbye to the men and started to haul our slow footed horse down the road to our village house. It’s not a very long walk but it seems like it is when you have to drag a slow footed horse every step of the way.

The next thing we needed to do was to get a plow and harness. Usually we can get this from Lena, one of our neighbors but when we asked, she said that her plow was over at her sister’s house because they were also plowing this day. So I went down the street and asked four other people but got the same answer each time. It is tough finding things sometimes during the season. Tanya started in on me that I ought to have paid someone to do the work. Tanya never believes I can do anything and has only recently come to understand that I even know Russian.

I thought of a couple more people I could ask and then started further down the road with the horse in tow. Three doors down I spotted Yevgeini’s father and asked him if I could use his plow and harness.

Now everybody in our village has known that I have had a bit of a feud with Yevghenni since two years ago when he played me for a fool over some work he was supposed to do with us. This feud was intensified after our house got broken into two winter’s ago and several liters of wine were taken. To this day there is not a doubt in my mind that Yevgheni and Pete were the one’s who broke my window and stole the wine, though they have never admitted it. So when I showed up at Yevgheni’s fathers door asking to borrow a tool, you could see on his face that this made him happy because his doing me a favor meant there was the possibility of some peace to be had. He told me he would loan me the plow with pleasure.

So now with horse and plow I was now ready to make some hills in my potato patch. Tanya had started in on the tomatoes and I called her over to help lead the horse.

“I thought you knew how to plow potatoes.”

“I know how to plow potatoes, but there is no one anywhere out here, regardless of how many decades they have been doing this, who does not have someone to lead the horse. This is a two person job, just grab his collar and let’s go.

Now, this is not the first time that Tanya has tried to help with the horse, but for sure she is awful at it. The horses have already learned a few basic commands and really, you just have to tell the horse what you want and he will do it. But for some reason, Tanya always tries to sweet-talk to the horses thinking that this will somehow make a difference to them. It does. Whenever she starts in on them, they all decide that there will be no work and all they want to do is eat. She also has a habit of saying the words with a funny accent. I don’t know why she does this and the horses never understand what the hell she is talking about.

“No-ah. No-ah.” Says Tanya. The horse literally looks at her and cocks and eyebrow.

“It is not no-ah, dammit, it’s nu!”

“No-ah…davai, no-ah.” The horse is laughing at her now. “She won’t listen to me…”

“NU!!” I shout. The horse jumps a bit and starts forward. I am the authoritative type.

Now in order to do a good job of plowing, one needs to be close to the plow and to have his back straight so to keep the nose of the plow down into the land. I will admit that this is really hard for me because I have not mastered the job of keeping my feet and moving at the proper speed to follow the horse. And this horse, for all of his slowness on the road, had a normal pace in the field.

So there I am, fumbling along behind the horse, trying to steer between the potatoes- not doing such a bad job of it, but still, it is really hard. I asked the horse to stop by saying Brrrr!, with a little roll to the “r”.

“Tanya, would you get him to slow down a bit?”


“You’ve got his head in your hands. Just lead him slower. I can’t keep up.”

“He doesn’t listen to me.”

“Just do it and stop trying to talk to him.”

We made it to the end of the row. It was not a bad line but it was really hard work. I was breathing heavy already and this was only one row. The horse was already eating from the grass at the canal at the end of our field.

“Come on, let’s go.”


“The next row, come on…”

“But he’s eating.”

“Would you put bring him back to the field please.”

“No-ah…”She was pulling on his neck. The horse ignored her as if she was a fly.

“No-ah… He won’t listen.”

“Jesus Christ…” I walked over and grabbed the horse’s neck. “NA mesto!” I yelled which means go to the correct place and pulled him over to the edge of the field. The horse knew what to do and followed my instructions. We then plowed the next row but when we got to the end, the horse would not respond to a stop command and kept going towards our house and the long grass and weeds there. I had to haul him back with all my might, he plough suspended between us. “BRRR!! YOU SON-OF-A-BITCH, BRRRR!!!”

We finally got him turned around and got ready to plow the next row when the horse leaned over and ate one of the potato plants.

“NO!” I yelled. The horse shot straight up. I ran over and looked him straight in the eye. “What the hell are you doing?” The horse shook his head at me. “Would you please keep a hold of his head?”

“How can I do that?”

“Just do it!” She grabbed his collar and said “no-ah” and for some reason the horse decided to hear her and started to walk forward, dragging the plough along, and killing several more plants.

“BRRRRRR!!!” I screamed. The horse stopped. “What the hell are you doing?’ I am not sure who I was speaking to more.

“I didn’t think he would listen.”

“But why did you even say anything?”

“I don’t know…”

I started to pull back on the plough. “Na Zad! Zad! Zad!” I yelled, which means come backwards. I was really sweating now and was having a hard time catching my breath. “OK, let’s go. Nu!” We started sown this row and I noticed that the horse was stepping on the plants. I screamed “NA Mesto” but he didn’t seem to understand. Maybe it was his eyes and he couldn’t see the plants but to eat them. I stopped him again and told Tanya to keep his head straight but all she did was ask me what this meant. I showed her again where his feet were supped to be. She said maybe that I should do it myself. I noticed my heart was starting to hurt.

At the end of the following row, I had to sit down and rest. Maybe I have been too much on my ass at the computer and not enough on the bike. Or maybe I am just getting older. Or maybe plowing is just too f**ked-up a job for anyone to have to do. But right about at that time I decided that this was it for potatoes.

Really, I am serious about this. Nothing else you do in the garden requires as much work as potatoes do. First you need to have the fertilizer go underneath and after you do twice the weeding and raking and caring that you do for other plants. Then you must plow, spray for bugs, feed them- forget it. Everything else we grow required less than half the effort and money. Forget it. I’ll pay already.

By the time I had returned the horse to KolHoz (and written us down for another in two weeks to re-do the hills), I was absolutely dog tired. But I still had to walk all the way back and then go back to work in the garden for the rest of the day. Luba by the way would not take our money. Probably this was because she was sitting next to her boss. In any case this meant the end of the plowing for now.

During the rest of the afternoon we picked strawberries, cleaned weeds and got our pickles together. By the end of the day we had collected another three buckets of strawberries and basically had things in order. The zucchini are coming on strong and the trees are full of little apples. Also my chick-peas are growing well and our white beans have started to climb the fence we made for them. And the tomatoes are looking healthy and starting to flower. Really, everything is coming along well. Except the potatoes.

I don’t know. Maybe we should try a smaller garden and only grow young potatoes for food during the summer. This we could do by hand and would need a lot less work. But in any case, reghardless of potatoes being a national product and cultural icon, I think I am going to pack it in.

More soon…