With its rich soil and relatively short, damp growing season, Prince Edward Island is practically tailor-made for the cultivation of potatoes. The first settlers planted potatoes because the hearty tubers would grow on the newly-cleared land, thriving even when hand-planted amongst the tree stumps. Much of the harvesting was also done by hand, with pickers pulling the potato stalks and gathering the tubers into baskets and bags. The field would then be harrowed to expose the remaining potatoes. While farmers today can take care of all their own harvesting, thanks to mechanical harvesters and diggers, farmers around the turn of the century had to hire teams of potato pickers to help them get the crop in from the field.
Farmers had to experiment with different varieties to discover which strains were-- and were not-- suited to the soil. They found, for instance, that the Irish Cobbler did not produce a good yield and that MacIntyre Blues were susceptible to blight. The Russet Burbank and Netted Gem are two varieties which have flourished in the Island's red fields.
In the late 1800s, potatoes began to emerge as an important cash crop on the Island. A regional export market opened up, and farmers began shipping their spuds to the lumberjacks of New Brunswick and the fishermen of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Soon, P.E.I. was starting to become known abroad as a potato capital. Potatoes were so plentiful that Island farmers also used them as pig feed, which in turn produced a thriving pork industry.
But pigs certainly were not the only occupants relying on potatoes for their chief subsistence. During the Depression years, when just about everything else was scarce, potatoes were still abundant. One expression used to characterize the Island diet during that era was 'potatoes and point.' If Islanders thought about any food besides potatoes, in other words, they had better be content with just pointing at it. While many might have wished for a more flavorful meal, the point remains that potatoes kept many stomachs full, stomachs that otherwise might have stayed empty.
The second half of the twentieth century has seen the industry shift its focus to the seed potato market. Famous for their quality, Island seed potatoes are now shipped around the world. Perhaps other countries hope that the charm of the 'Million Acre Farm' will rub off on them. Much of the table stock is now grown for large potato processing plants, which churn out millions of french fries each day. While no one farms between the tree stumps anymore, the potato continues to grow almost anywhere else it is planted in our red soil.