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Cultivating Potatoes

The “potato” crop had an important place in the fields of the first farmers in the Saint John River Valley. At least this is what can be deduced from the rare documents of the period. Our primary source is dated 1799: the inhabitants of Saint Basile of Madawaska demand a resident priest and promise to give him every year “150 bushels of wheat, 25 of peas, 25 of oats and 150 of potatoes.” The correspondence of parish priests also provides bits of information about life in the area. “I have this year about 1,000 bushels of potatoes which I have not been able to sell (...) apparently potatoes are good for one’s health,” writes Father L. Marcoux, on April 13, 1818.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the cultivation of the potato increases in importance. At the first regional exhibition held on October 20, 1859 in Saint-Basile “on land belonging to Joseph Cyr, Michel’s son”, awards are given to producers of the best “certified potatoes, early and intermediate potatoes (Irish Cobler, Bliss, Triumph, Keswick, Kennebec), certified late potatoes, and table potatoes.” With the advent of railroads, farmers move gradually towards a more specialized and commercialized agriculture. Le Moniteur Acadien on May 3, 1887 reported that the “Americans pay 75 cents for a barrel of potatoes.” Then, as now, the crop is subject to the vagaries of weather. “Rot attacks potatoes and farmers complain that their harvest is hardly worth gathering,” we read in Le Moniteur Acadien of September 23, 1887. Since this misfortune mainly affects producers in Maine, farmers in Canadian Madawaska do good business. “The NB railway has already transported 80,000 bushels of potatoes to the United States from the fall harvest in Madawaska and in the surrounding areas.” (Le Moniteur Acadien, September 27, 1887).

The “potato harvest” now transforms rural life in the Saint John River Valley. Inexperienced pickers arrive from all over; they get aches, as well as muscle soreness and are exhausted by the effort of filling the barrels lined up between the rows. Others are busy transporting barrels to the potato storage cellar, a new type of building that now characterizes the large potato producing farms especially in Saint Andre, Grand Falls and Drummond. In recent decades, farmers of these villages have become true experts in the cultivation of potatoes and their farms are equipped with ultra-modern machinery.

G. Desjardins
Université de Moncton campus d'Edmundston Société Historique du Madawaska Ville d'Edmundston Patrimoine Canadien