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A POTATO CROP TURNED BAD QUICKLY TRIGGERS THOUGHTS OF ONE OF HISTORY'S DARKEST PERIODS

We didn't think much about it at first. I had been digging small quantities of potatoes for the last month as we needed them. It was a pretty good crop for a dry summer. They were not large but adequate and free of scale. I was surprised when Kathleen reported that the last bucketful contained a lot of rotten ones.

They had seemed fine when I dug them, but they weren't now. They were slimy, mushy and smelled awful. When we went out to dig better ones, we found that hill after hill was rotten or beginning to spoil. We sampled around the plot and discovered bad news everywhere, at the top of the hill and down below. What had happened? How had the 15 bushels of good potatoes we had counted on become an obnoxious smelling mush?

It seems that the sad answer is Photopthora Infestans, an air-borne pathogen that thrives in periods of warm, damp weather. This is the same notorious agent that caused the disaster of the Irish Potato Famine, which began in 1845.

As we dug looking for sound potatoes, I kept thinking of the panic that must have consumed millions of Irish people that September as they realized that their winter staple had disappeared and they were face to face with starvation.

Although 150 years have passed since this dire time, and the facts seem clear enough to us now, the issue of the Potato Famine and the British response to it are still the stuff of controversy.

The Internet bristles with commentary found on a Web site set up for inquiry into the Irish Potato Famine. Your printer will churn out many pages of information, but the plot of this grim story is not hard to understand.

English landlords claimed 95 percent of Ireland's farms and exacted steep rents from the native farmers. Ireland's farmers sold their grains and livestock to pay the rents. In order to feed themselves they cultivated potatoes, which thrived in the climate, kept well in storage and, when combined with some dairy products, could provide almost all of a person's nutritional needs.

Without the potato, little stood between the Irish and starvation. Within a decade of the famine, more than a quarter of the island's population either had died or emigrated. When it was decided that landlords were responsible for destitute tenants, it was found to be cheaper to crowd the peasants onto empty lumber boats returning to the New World than it was to feed them in poorhouses. The mortality aboard these crowded "coffin ships" reached 50 percent.

Author C.J. Bladey defends the British response to the Potato Famine by chronicling the measures the government attempted. In November of 1845, Prime Minister Robert Peel purchased American corn with a value of 100,000 pounds sterling. Later, 140,000 people were employed in public works projects.

It is fair to say that 19th-century governments had no experience in public relief on the scale that the Potato Famine demanded. Governments were not even certain that it was proper for them to do anything about widespread calamity.

Famine relief is not a simple matter. The American corn that was imported created a disaster of its own. Unlike the potato, corn lacks key nutrients, and its wholesale substitution for the potato intensified malnutrition and disease. No one foresaw this.

While some of the English response is commendable in intent, if not in scope, one overwhelming statistic haunts the discussion and belittles the British attempts at relief: During the starvation, British landlords extracted 6 million pounds sterling in taxes, rent and agricultural produce. Farmers who were unable to pay were evicted and their homes burned.

If the foreign landlords had not exacted this toll, the country could have fed itself despite the crop disease.

Even when the potato blight abated in 1848, the suffering continued. There was a scarcity of seed potatoes, and farmers were justifiably hesitant to plant potatoes even if they could get seed.

The blight is still endangering world potato crops, and recent mutations of Photopthora Infestans have made combating it more difficult. It is hoped that a recently discovered resistant potato strain will be made widely available in a few years.

My son and I dug in the potato patch as we talked about suffering and history. We are blessed to live in a time and place where our agriculture is diversified enough to assure we won't starve when crops are struck by the inevitable blights.

But dig a hill of potatoes reduced to a puslike goo, and you will realize millions of people have not been blessed with multiple sources of food. It sends a shiver down your back to imagine yourself an Irish farmer with a house full of children, an empty cellar and winter coming on.

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