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Potato Farming in No. Dakota with A 1937 F-20 (Part II)
by Brian Wayne Wells
(As published in the November/December 2008 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine)
As noted previously, Walsh County, North Dakota borders the Red River of the North in eastern North Dakota. (See the first article in the series called “Potato Farming in North Dakota [Part I]” contained in the July/August 2008 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.) Because of its location and its light rich soils, Walsh County traditionally leads all 53 counties of North Dakota in the production of potatoes. Indeed, some years, Walsh County produces 40% of the North Dakota’s total annual potato crop. Walsh County is divided into 37 townships. The townships on the extreme eastern edge of Walsh County that border the Red River are not the leading townships in the county in potato production. Rather it is the “second range” of townships back from the Red River that are regarded as the best locations for the growing of potatoes. Among this second tier of townships in Walsh County is Martin Township.
As noted previously, Martin Township was, in 1936, the home of a particular farmer and his wife and two children. Together they lived on a diversified 160-acre farm on which they raised potatoes as a primary cash crop. However, they also raised spring wheat, corn, oats and hay. They also milked a small herd of Holstein dairy cattle. They had a chicken house full of laying hens and a few hogs in an attempt to diversify the sources of farm income as much as possible. Consequently, a large portion of the arable land of their farm was taken up by pastureland and crops used as feed for the animals on the farm. Martin Township was located so far north in the Midwest that the typical growing season was only 110 days long, extending only from an average last frost in the spring on about May 11 until the first killing frost in the fall on about September 11. Corn which requires a 120-day season, does not, therefore, have enough time to mature in Martin Township. This far north, corn is not a cash crop and is used as an animal feed on the farm. Consequently, all the corn, raised by our Martin Township farmer was chopped green and put in the silo to be fed to his dairy herd. Only wheat and potatoes were sold as cash crops.
As the growing season approached in the Spring of 1937, our Martin Township farmer was reducing the amount of the acreage to be devoted to oats and hay on his farm for the coming year. The reason for this was that over the winter of 1936-1937 he had purchased a new row crop tractor which would, eventually, replace the horses on his farm. As noted previously, this new tractor was a Farmall F-20 tractor bearing the Serial Number 71355. (Ibid.) He had purchased No. 71355 from the Honsvald Oil Company in Grafton, North Dakota, the county seat of Walsh County. (Ibid.)
No. 71355 was a tricycle-style tractor with a narrow front end, and factory-installed 5.50 x 16 inch rubber tires mounted on French and Hecht (F. & H.) round-spoke wheels in the front and 11.25 x 24 inch tires also mounted on F. & H. round-spoke tires in the rear. Because the tractor had been fitted with rubber tires at the International Harvester Farmall Works factory in Rock Island, Illinois, No. 71355 was also fitted with the optional foot brakes and was fitted with the optional 28-tooth high speed road gear. With the more common 36-inch rubber wheels in the rear, this optional road gear would have delivered a speed of 7.07 miles per hour (m.p.h.) to the tractor.
However, because No. 71355 was fitted with the optional 24-inch wheels in the rear, the speed of the tractor in every gear was reduced by almost 1/3. Accordingly, the speeds available to No. 71355 through its four speed transmission were 1.575 mph in first gear, 1.925 mph in second gear, 2.275 mph in third gear and 4.666 mph in the optional fourth gear.
Because this range of speeds was painfully slow for cultivation and other light duty field work, our Martin Township farmer had agreed to the installation of a supplemental high-speed transmission to No. 71355, as a part of the original purchase contract. The particular high-speed supplemental transmission installed by the Honsvald Oil Company to No. 71355 was the Model HT-2033 supplemental transmission manufactured by the Heisler Company of Hudson, Iowa. (Ibid.) The Model HT-2033 supplemental transmission added some very important working speeds back to the tractor that had been taken away by the 24 inch wheels. These were 3.654 mph in high range of first gear, 4.46 mph in high range of second gear, 5.25 mph in high range of third gear. Additionally, the new Heisler transmission added a road gear of 11.28168 mph to the F-20 for fast transport down the road when needed. To be able to use No. 71355 for the most important of summer field work tasks, i.e. cultivation of the row crops, our Martin Township farmer had included the purchase of a Model 229 two-row mounted cultivator as part of the same sales contract with Honsvald. Additionally, as noted previously, the purchase contract with Honsvald Oil Company also included the purchase of a new Model 12 two-row potato digger.
Throughout most of January and early February, 1937, there had been accumulations of ten to twelve inches of snow on the ground. However, unseasonably warm temperatures in early March melted the snow entirely by the middle of the month. Now our Martin Township farmer had to wait for the soil to dry out and warm up.
Our Martin Township farmer knew of the old “rule” which stated that potatoes should be planted each year on Good Friday of the Easter holidays. However, like most such rules, our Martin Township farmer knew that this rule did not apply to the “far north” of the Midwest where Grafton, North Dakota was located. Most years in Walsh County, the last heavy frost in the spring occurred in early May. Furthermore, he suspected that the old rule referred to potatoes planted in gardens in “sheltered” areas around the homestead. He knew that the soil out in the open fields took a little longer to warm up in the spring than did the soil in the protected areas around the house.
April, 1937 was slightly warmer than normal and so was early May. The last cold night that even approached a killing frost occurred in mid-April. Furthermore, the gentle rains that occurred throughout April and May helped warm the soil. These springtime rains dried quickly in the light soil of his farm and did not unduly delay the field work because of wet conditions. Accordingly, our Martin Township farmer got into the fields in early May of 1937. He put the bright, red No. 71355 to work preparing seed bed. Both the spring wheat and oats could germinate in soil as cool as 37°F while seed potatoes required a temperature of 42°F. Therefore, our Martin Township farmer and his neighbors usually sowed the spring wheat and the oats before planting the potatoes. By contrast, corn required a soil temperature of 50°F for planting. Accordingly, corn was planted only after the potatoes.
Cutting the seed potatoes into pieces ready for the potato planter was a job that employed the whole family and it was an ambitious job to be conducted each spring as planting time arrived. The average potato might weigh 8 to 12 ounces. After cutting the potatoes into pieces ready for planting, each piece would weigh about 2.5 oz to 3.75 oz. In the past, potato growers and their families would cut all the potatoes by hand with a knife. Our Martin Township farmer remembered that even as a small child, he helped his parents with this daunting task of cutting the potatoes for planting. His mother would admonish him to be careful to leave two or three “eyes” on each piece of potato he cut. “Don’t make dummies,” she said, referring to potato pieces which had no eyes. The eyes of the potato were the locations on the potato where the spouts of the new plant would begin to form once the potato was underground. Leaving two or more eyes on a seed potato piece would be extra insurance that the seed potato piece would still sprout and grow even if one eye failed to sprout. Our Martin Township farmer’s mother used to joke with him as a child and say that the potato piece needed two eyes to see which way to grow.
Once cut, the seed potato pieces would be placed in a sack and sacks full of potato segments would be placed in the root cellar where the potato pieces would be kept warm enough to not freeze in the winter weather and would be kept cool enough not start sprouting. Additionally, the cut sides of the potato pieces would “cure” or “heal over” and the potato piece would be protected from rotting.
He remembered that cutting seed potatoes by hand was a long and arduous task in the spring because the family would have to cut enough potatoes to plant 11,600 pieces for every acre of land they intended to plant to potatoes. This meant the family would have to cut enough pieces to fill as many as 14 sacks of potato sections for each acre of potatoes they wished to plant. Currently for the 30 acre field that our Martin Township farmer wished to plant to potatoes, he needed 420 sacks full of seed potato pieces. Cutting this many seed potatoes would have been impossible for the family alone without hiring on extra help. However, a relatively recent and ingenious invention made in the 1920s by a local boy, greatly reduced the hand labor of cutting the potatoes into sections in the spring.
During the 1920s, George W. French, from rural Grafton, North Dakota, invented a mechanical potato cutter which would cut small potatoes into two pieces and large potatoes into six pieces. (Lynda Kenney, The Past is Never Far Away: A History of the Red River Valley Potato Industry [Potato Growers Association Press: East Grand Forks, Minn., 1995] p. 123.) The French potato “sizer and cutter” was a new invention that greatly reduced the amount of time that was taken up cutting potatoes for planting. French’s potato cutter also “sized” the potatoes for planting with a mechanical potato planter. Mechanical potato planters worked much more smoothly when the seed potato pieces were cut into relatively uniform chunks. The French potato sizer and cutter did a good job at creating uniform chunks for planting in the field.
Although the French mechanical potato cutter could not assure that every seed potato piece that was produced by the machine would have an eye, the process of cutting a great number of seed potato pieces for planting was simplified. Thus, some “dummies” or “duds” would escape the careful attention of the potato farmer and his family in the automatic cutting process and make it into the sacks of potato pieces that would be stored in the root cellar and may be planted in the field. other seed potato pieces and would be planted even though they would not grow. When the potatoes would sprout up through the ground there would be a “gap” or a blank in the row where the dummy had been planted. Our Martin Township farmer began to expect and to tolerate these occasional gaps in the rows of growing potatoes. He surely did not want to go back to hand-cutting the potatoes with a knife, just to eliminate all dummies.