Forum: Growing potatoes proves value in ‘reinventing the wheel’

You can get ‘em cheaper and easier at the store, sure, but then you miss out on spuds’ real perks.

Dan Hazen

By Dan Hazen / Herald Forum

Old sayings are helpful … until they’re not. Examples include:

“Better safe than sorry.” Nope. Sometimes you’ve got to take the risk, break something, ask for forgiveness, and then try again.

“History is written by the winners.” No, no it’s not. It’s written by a privileged class who define “winning” and “losing” in the first place.

My current favorite source of contemplation is, “Don’t re-invent the wheel.” Because comfort, profit and growth are our highest values, anything that prohibits them is, by definition, a waste at best and evil at worst. This goes for learning something which has already been learned by someone else. Why put the effort into discovering or understanding a thing that has already been understood and reproduced by others?

Why? In a word: character.

Sticking with the wheel metaphor, the person who does not know life without a wheel also does not know the slight variations in the road surface, subtle changes in elevation, or the details which can only be noticed when one is walking. The wheel makes it possible to carry a load and never be forced to ask — “Do I really want to carry this much weight?”— because the wheel does much of the work.

Every year, as I excitedly place seed potatoes in the ground on St. Patrick’s Day (the only day to plant potatoes and the ritual beginning of the Garden Year) and I wonder if I should even bother with potatoes. They take up a lot of space, they’re “heavy feeders” (meaning they suck up a lot of soil nutrients), it takes a descent amount of labor to care for them (hilling, weeding, harvesting) and here’s the clincher: they’re cheap and easy to get. The “wheel” which produces a potato for sale at the store has been nearly perfected. There’s no need for me to re-invent it.

But every year I do.

Every year I burn countless calories preparing the soil and cultivating the plants to replace those same calories in the form of potatoes. This humbles me. It slows me down and makes me grateful. I pay attention to the weather, watch for pests and plan for harvest and storage. This makes me observant and more alert. Growing a potato somehow simultaneously helps me live in the moment, and plan for the future.

Come the following February, when I emerge from the dampness of the root cellar with the last few pounds of last year’s crop; when I then boil ‘em, mash ‘em or stick ‘em in a stew, I can’t help but think of those with too little to eat, neighbors with no space or time to grow a potato even if they wanted to. I find compassion is growing in me again, even in the dead of winter.

Compassion. Presence. Gratitude. Humility. None of that comes from a $5 bag of spuds tossed in the bottom of a jumbo Costco trolley.

I don’t re-invent the “Potato Wheel” every year to get a better potato. I do it to get a better man.

Dan Hazen is the community pastor at Allen Creek Community Church in Marysville.

Herald Forum

The Herald Forum invites community members to submit essays on topics of importance and interest to them. Essays typically are between 400 and 600 words in length, although exceptions for longer pieces can be made. To submit essays or for more information about the Herald Forum, write Herald Opinion editor Jon Bauer at or call him at 425-339-3466.

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