Family reunites on North Dakota potato farm

Farm Forum

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Joe Boehm, 78, was diagnosed with cancer last spring. After months of chemotherapy treatments there’s reason for optimism, and his daughter, Jean Kraft, thinks she knows why he has survived.

“The potato harvest. That kept him motivated (to beat cancer),” Kraft said. “That was his focus. He said, ‘I’ve got to get those potatoes in the ground.’”

Each spring Boehm and Beatrice, his wife of 55 years, plant seven different kinds of potatoes on two plots of land, totaling about two acres on the family farm tucked in the hills about 10 miles east of St. Anthony in Morton County.

The couple lives alone on the farm and Boehm still handles most of the planting and combining of the wheat. When things get too busy their son, Perry, will come and help.

Earlier this month, a number of their 10 grown children, grandchildren and a great-grandchild, a couple of friends and sisters and in-laws, about 20 in all, traveled from Bismarck, Mandan, Fargo and South Dakota for the harvest.

The one-day event is more than the sacking an estimated 10,000 pounds of potatoes. It’s the reconnecting of siblings, cousins and forging the bond between grandparents and the younger generation, the Bismarck Tribune reported.

“It’s fun work,” said granddaughter Katie Kraft of Bismarck. “It’s nice to get dirt under your fingernails for once. It’s a great way to get the family together and eat great food; good German cooking.”

It has become a cherished tradition.

“It’s better than Christmas and birthdays all rolled together,” Jean Kraft said.

As long as Joe Boehm can remember, his family has always had an abundance of potatoes on their farm.

His dad once planted 10 acres of spuds. That only lasted one year. “He never did that again,” Boehm said. “A bunch of work.”

As in all harvests, Joe Boehm sits in his John Deere tractor slowly pulling a small, single row potato harvester. The digging blade unearths the spuds and the conveying chain momentarily lifts the potatoes from the ground to separate them from the dirt. The workers bend their bodies at the waist and with both hands acting like pistons pumping back and forth; they quickly fill their baskets and buckets before dumping them into gunny sacks.

Near the end of the afternoon, Joe Boehm was worried his crew was losing steam. His tractor was far ahead of the pickers and their pace had slowed down. But after catching up he saw a jump in their steps. “They see the end in sight,” he said in his thick German accent through a wry smile on his face.

They will sell some of the harvest or give away sacks to family and friends, and store the rest in a root cellar for the winter.

“We get to eat potatoes all winter”, said son Pat Boehm. “If we ever buy potatoes we are chastised greatly.”

For Beatrice Boehm, the day’s effort is not lost on her. “I always feel proud,” she said. It’s quite an accomplishment.”

As the crew was out in the fields, Beatrice Boehm and her two sisters were at the house preparing the Thanksgiving-style feast for the tired group.

Pat Boehm calls the effort of the day “reward-work.”

“It’s like a holiday atmosphere,” said Pat Boehm. “We appreciate these times, because they will come to an end at some point. We get to spend time together and my mother always puts on a hell of a meal.”