If you can’t tell by my last name, let me clear it up for you—I’m not Irish.
Well, OK, maybe I am just a little. There’s a drop or two of Irish in my pedigree, passed down on my maternal grandfather’s lineage. So, while I’m more accustomed to schnitzel, bierocks and beer, there’s still a tiny part of my soul that leaves room for colcannon, soda bread and whiskey.
My grandpa didn’t talk much about the Irish in his lineage. Like many of us Americans, he could trace his roots back to a lot of different cultures, from Irish, to English and even a little Native American. It wasn’t until I became an adult, and he was already passed, that I started to piece together how we might have come to be.
Best as I can tell, a chapter of his family’s story might have started with a little microorganism called Phytophthora infestans. That’s what we call it today, but 175 years ago, in 1845, farmers in Ireland knew it as “potato blight.” Despite its microscopic size, this blight ruined one-half to three-quarters of the Irish potato crop each year, for seven years. That crop loss resulted in the death of roughly 1 million Irish from starvation and related health issues, and the emigration of at least another million to other shores.
As an adult, I see that the Great Famine was a tragedy that could have been lessened to a degree if leaders had just stepped up and put the needs of the people they governed before their own interests. The History Channel explains it better, but essentially it starts with British rulers prohibiting Irish Catholics from owning or leasing land or voting and holding elected office. Which led to most of the land in English or Anglo-Irish ownership with Irish Catholics forced to tenant farm. Those tenant farmers could only afford to eat potatoes, because corn and bread were too expensive due to tariffs on grain.
It was a famine created by a committee and chaired by Mother Nature.
Farmers are at the whims of nature and governments. It was true in Ireland in 1845 and it’s true around the globe in 2020. Australian cattle ranchers are trying to rebuild herds following the vast wildfires this last year. Argentinian soybean farmers face 33% export taxes on soybean products. American farmers in the Midwest saw a 2019 that was filled with bomb cyclones, flooding, prevented planting and delayed harvesting.
We’re not at a Great Famine level yet, though, because of the work of millions of people to give farmers the tools and education to make better decisions and plan ahead. Scientists have found solutions for potato blight. Weather forecasters can tell if conditions are ripe for fungal flare-ups. Market watchers can help fill gaps in supply shortages so that people stay fed. Many of those have drops of Irish in them because of an ancestor’s flight to another shore, just like me, and maybe some of you too.
I was pondering all of this today as I plan an experimental container potato garden that I’ll plant on St. Patrick’s Day. I think Grandpa Clark would be pleased that his city-dwelling farm kid is trying her hand at potato farming, even if it’s just in a 5-gallon bucket with drainage holes.
I hope I make that drop of Irish blood proud.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or [email protected].