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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Potato Famine Comes to the Valley…

The Valley in April

An unusual amount of traffic passed me in the Valley last weekend, heavy traffic--even for a Saturday. Most of it pickup trucks; most of them heading down valley. And then I remembered the occasion that had  turned the Upper Loop Road this morning into a thoroughfare: the auction at Alden Farms.

Farm auctions, I’m afraid, are a sign of the times, have been for several years. Auctioning off farm equipment is certainly nothing new to the Valley, but regardless, each event gives one pause. All that machinery that for years dutifully performed on command; machinery one labored over to keep maintained and operating; machinery one knew well enough, perhaps, to name: a faithful old friend. It has to be hard to say good-bye to equipment woven into the fabric of one’s life for so many years. Perhaps that’s why most farms have equipment cemeteries, machines whose days have run out or their services, for whatever reason, are no longer required. They are put out to pasture—rusted memories—until they become part of the pasture, until the pasture swallows them up….Auction date And what does one do when the plow is gone? The cultivator? The mower sold off, as well as the tractor that pulled it? Just two days before the auction block was set, I saw Jan Alden in her driveway and stopped to ask her that question. They had tried, Jan told me–she and Peter--to make a go of potato farming  (See Oct. 12 post “What Do You Call Potatoes in the Valley?…”), but the long hours, hard work—and the ever diminishing returns—had taken their toll. “It’s just not worth it anymore,” Jan lamented, at the same time reprimanding her burly Chesapeake for trying to rest his ample wooly head in my lap while I was standing: “You know…there comes a time when you realize it’s just not working for you anymore. We’re not nearly old enough to retire, but we can’t go on like this. We’re just plain worn out.” The past summer’s abysmal growing season yielded but a spare, wormy crop--the last straw--and with this crop failure the Aldens started packing.Selling off I remember years ago seeing specialty potatoes (fingerlings, I think they were) from Alden Farms on sale at the Totem Lake Larry’s Market. The Aldens have outlasted the defunct Larry’s by a decade at least.

So the auction block it is for the Aldens’ equipment. And then Jan and Peter will put their stately Victorian home up for sale. The Aldens are moving to Florida, I learned. And they don’t plan to farm there either. Rather, they intend to rent…bicycles, that is. Jan and Peter have purchased two bicycle rental shops and hope to make their livelihood providing two-wheeled rentals to tourists and locals. They hope to make the move by early May.

Jan told me she and Peter used to be avid cyclists; in fact, cycling was how they met. Just the past summer they had taken up the sport again, bought new bikes, and when work allowed, cycled in the Valley. (Considering Jan’s interest in bicycles, I’m curious why she takes no notice of my classic ride, Gladys. Perhaps she’s distracted by her big dog’s aggressive attempts to cuddle me up.) One more friendly wave soon gone from the Valley. I’ll miss those waves and the big brown diesel pickup growling past: Peter, to and from town; Peter, to and from his potato fields.

I recall attending a Monroe Library function commemorating some significant anniversary of that great American writer John Steinbeck. Peter was one of the speakers (as was a professor from my Masters’ committee, coincidentally,) and echoing Steinbeck in his novel Grapes of Wrath, Peter championed migrant workers and their contribution to local agriculture. After the Q & A session, I approached him, introduced myself as “that guy you see walking out in the Valley all the time.” I should have asked Peter if he was somehow related to John Alden, he of Pilgrim and Mayflower fame, husband to Priscilla. After all, Peter came to the Valley on a pilgrimage of sorts, a potato pilgrimage.

Last summer Peter was fussing with some machinery by his Quonset hut. Gladys and I stopped to visit a while. I asked him about the Sky River Driving Range and its earlier life as a Cambodian flower field. Golf lawn “It was a way to make a little more revenue to help tide us over between crops,” said Peter. “Using the land for recreational purposes brought in three times as much money as leasing it to the Cambodians to grow their flowers.”

Gladys and I pedaled past Alden Farms the day after the auction. Most of the machinery was gone. The place looked bare, almost naked in fact. Someone was loading purchases into his pickup. He waved; I waved back. I wish the Aldens good luck as they move from flood plain to hurricane zone. Given the depressed real estate market, I hope they’ll be able to sell their place and come out ahead. A fresh coat of paint on the old Victorian might help some.P. Alden's VictorianAnd the driving range? What’s to become of that, I wonder? You know, I’ve always thought that green, manicured golf lawn would make an excellent movie set. After all, there’s certainly precedent for movie making in the Valley: Ed’s barn starred in a film and Darigold shot several commercials in the sunroom porch of his house. Another Valley movie? Yeah, why not? I’ve in mind a Caddyshack III. And there are plenty of Valley moles for walk-ons. Swing away

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  1. Peter told me a few years back that he was 14th generation from John And Priscilla Alden of the Mayflower - John Alden was a 'Barrel Maker' I believe.

  2. A virtual font of knowledge are those Beebes. No need to use Google anymore.... I believe "barrel makers" in those days were known as "coopers." Thanks for the info; you saved me a trip to Florida.

  3. I just looked for them on the University Farmers Market list. Not seeing them, I googled the name and found the auction information and this nicely written piece. We so enjoyed their potatoes over the years, often buying 25 lb. boxes for the winter. It's sad to see this happening, but we wish them well for the future.

  4. Thanks for the comment. The potato farm looks forlorn these days. The driving range has been plowed and planted in corn. A neighbor told me the fate of the property is the hands of a bank.