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Subterranean adventures and agricultural concern

Subterranean adventures and agricultural concern

Plants which are secure in a fertile soil produce potatoes of great culinary merit

It goes without saying that our potato is a good friend, easy to deal with, reliable and inexhaustible as it is. It can even regenerate of its own accord and does so with great vigour. Some claim that a potato peel can produce several tubers if it car­ries a germ (though you must have green fingers if you want them to thrive in your kitchen).  

From its earliest arrival on the old continent, our South‑American friend was given rather an ambivalent reception. It aroused the interest of scientists who were undoubtedly fascinated by its regenerative virtues, stirred the curiosity of royalty who granted it a place in its garden. But in flat contradiction with these favourable trends was the reaction of the masses. They shunned it with suspicion and hostility and, not recognizing its suitability for cultivation, cursed it as an evil food.
At the beginning of its adventures with royalties stood Philip II, King of Spain. He sent the Pope, who was suffering from gout, a present of a few potatoes, recommending them as a new remedy. The "papas" were planted and harvested in the papal gardens. Did they relieve the aches and pains of the Holy Father?

We don't know, but he must have thought highly of King Potato for he sent a present of some plants to the governor of the city of Mons, in Belgium, who, in his turn, dispatched two specimens to the director of the gardens of the Emperor of Vienna, Charles de l ?Ecluse. A little later the potato had the honour of being planted in the royal gardens of Basel. At the dawn of the 17th century, one variety flowered in the King of France's garden in Paris - which today is the "Jardin des Plantes". A great deal of attention was paid to it in the Verhulst gardens in Bruges. Two years before the French Revolution broke out, Louis XVI ordered eleven varieties to be cultivated along with his category of useful plants at Rambouillet. 

However, the potato had great difficulty in becoming a rural staple. Scientists had to intervene and dabble in agricultural politices. The Italian physicist Count Allessandro Volta tried to get Voltaire interested in it. Among the potato's stout supporters we can mention Benjamin Franklin, the famous Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, the agronomist and pharmacist Antoine Augustin Parmentier and the chemist Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier. Quite a patronage! But their plump prot?g? had to confront the suspicion of the masses. Frederick William I (nicknamed the King‑Sergeant) personally compelled the peasants to plant potatoes... and woe betide those who didn't obey! They were threatened with having their nose and ears cut off! His son and successor, Frederick William II was less cruel but no less tough. However, he did at least distribute free planting‑material to the peasants.

In Russia too, the potato was being slandered: "if you plant the devil's apple, you will be left without wheat and the fields will be starved." Tsar Nicholas I suppressed these peasant rumours by deporting to Siberia the Moujiks that had refused to cultivate the unfairly maligned plant. Today the potato has taken its revenge. The Germans eat 72 kg a year per person, the English 111 kg. The Soviet Union is the world's biggest producer. Nevertheless, there is a country where the humble South American was granted good fortune, a small country in which it led a life like a dream. Listen to this... once upon a time, at the beginning of the 17th century, there was a priest called Petrus Hondius who planted potatoes all around his country house in the southwest of Holland. Petrus was not only a man of God, but a poet and a botanist as well. His garden was famous in the province of Zeeland for its vegetables and plants and for the extraordinary cultures he tried out in it... Normally, the public was hardly aware of such botanical experiments.

But for once, with the help of a suitable climate and the right type of soil and a bit of common sense, the potato received a warm welcome. The first records of potato cultivation and consumption in Holland date from the end of the 17th century and specifically come from Zeeland, the province in which Hondius carried out his experiments. As the years went by, the other Dutch provinces got to know the potato so that this new culture tended to supplant the traditional cereal crops, the oil seed rape and quite a number of vegetables.

By 1770 the whole country was growing spuds. The routine for an ordinary family was to serve potatoes at all three main meals. With them, the population became less dependent on the speculative prices of cereals. Moreover, by providing protein of a higher nutritious quality and with more vitamin C than tra­ditional foods contained, the potato was largely responsible for the regression of scurvy. By the end of the 19th century the potato had received its letters patent of nobility. It no longer was the food of the poor but had become a meal constitu­ent for one and all. And today, Holland places a quarter of its large scale agricultural soil at the dispo­sal of the potato.

How did the tuberous nightshade come to attain such prosperity on Dutch territory?. The answer seems temptingly simple: isn't it because Dutch industrialists knew how to make good use of nature's gifts?

Good‑natured though it is, the potato is nonethe­less vulnerable. It thoroughly dislikes frost and sea­sons that are either too wet or too dry. The moderate climate and the right amount of sunshine in Holland are the prerequisites for good harvests. But the parti­cular nature of the country is found in its polders, the land reclaimed from the sea ‑ and lying beneath the sea level ‑ protected by dikes, drained by pumping, and crisscrossed by canals which drain and irrigate them independently. And so the potato, which feels at home in a humid and rich soil with a high nitrogen, phosphate, potassium and magnesium content, has been given a homogeneous plantation bed, made up of fertile loams free of stones, which is tilled mechan­ically with the plough and the harrow, planted by the planting machine, earthed up by the adjustable ridg­ing body, dug up by the potato‑lifter which uproots the matured tubers.

But before it can leave the earth it sometimes has to fear from disasters such as mildew, leaf roll, scurf, bacteria and moulds. A supreme body of specialists safeguard it and are attempting to set up defenses for it. They consult with one another about the best kind of care. For the Dutch are not content with simply relying on good natural conditions in order to become the principal world exporters of potatoes. They have always been interested in the selection of new hardy varieties that keep well, and also in the quality of the plants.

There are no less than twenty‑five institutes which undertake and pursue research on the potato. About 180 selectors and selecting enterprises commercial­ize more than 80 varieties somewhere in the world. As for the farmers, who are concerned with intensive production, they have always been interested in agronomical and technical improvements which could be of benefit to the tuber. The modernization of farms has moreover become easier because of their size and their specialization, and this embraces even the marketing side. Everything is organized to serve the purpose of doing brisk trade on the exter­nal markets, where indeed the Dutch obtain good prices even when the supply is abundant, because the Dutch quality is acknowledged and appreciated.