A few feet from where Cruz stands in a covered potato tunnel, a robin flaps frantically, entangled in a bit of twine. Cruz hustles over and finds that the twine is twisted around the bird’s wing multiple times, and that its panicked flapping is only making things worse. Cruz grasps the bird gently, yet firmly in his hand, calming it as he unwinds the twine. But the string is too badly snarled to come undone.
With help from field supervisor, Tom Skrovan, and a sharp pocket knife, the men go to work, forehead to forehead, nose to nose, with the concentration and seriousness of surgeons. Cruz cradles and calms the wounded bird while Skrovan teases out and snips the remaining strings, freeing the bird to live another day.
In his 13 years with The Chef’s Garden, Cruz has been a harvester and a grower – and, for the past four years, a team leader. Today he is overseeing the season’s first harvest of new potatoes, and he gets a little misty-eyed surveying his crop with the air of a proud father.
“The thing I love about my job is that I get to see the plants grow from very little, to big like this,” he said.
Typically, Cruz said, this crop remain in the ground until the potato leaves and vines die off and the tubers are fully grown. But full-grown potato sizes are much too large for Chef’s Garden customers. “They don’t want that,” Cruz said.
New potatoes are the earliest of the season, and also the smallest of our potato sizes, which is what makes them so desirable. Chefs are partial to potatoes the size of small eggs and smaller − down to the size of tiny peas or pebbles. As long as they don’t fall through the holes in the bottoms of the harvesting crates, Cruz said they make the cut.
Now in his fourth year as team leader, Cruz said he is still adjusting to his leadership role. When asked if he enjoys his expanded responsibilities, he pauses a moment before answering.
“I would tell you, yes,” he said. “Is it easy? No.”
Growing potatoes is the easiest part of his job, he said. Being attentive and sensitive to the needs, moods, concerns and health of his team members is much more complex.
“Besides just growing, you need to know why somebody is having an angry day or something,” he said. “Just because someone is smiling all the time doesn’t mean there is nothing wrong. I want to be a good leader, like Chavez, not just saying ‘Work! Work! Work!’” (Caesar Chavez was a Mexican/American farm worker-turned activist who protested the exploitation of immigrant farm workers in America and advocated for the rights of farm workers to unionize.)
Cruz humbly admits that he still has a lot of learning to do. Besides trusting wisdom from his mother (it was she who first taught him that potatoes turned green are no good), and looking to leaders like Chavez for inspiration, Cruz said he leans most heavily on his father Javier’s wealth of farming experience and knowledge.
Javier Figueroa Velasco has worked a quarter century in the fields at The Chef’s Garden. In the earliest days of the farm, before growers specialized in individual crops, Javier was responsible for helping grow and harvest nearly every crop on the farm. That has made him a rich resource − one that is a mere arm’s length away as father and son work alongside one another day by day.
“He has the experience. I need his experience,” Cruz said. “I am a grower, but I need to learn more. I’ve learned everything from him.”
One thing he’s learned is that the most important rule of growing good potatoes is maintaining good soil. Since potatoes spend their entire gestation underground, Cruz said soil conditions are critical.
Fortunately, the loose, sandy loam on the shores of Lake Erie is perfectly suited to potatoes. Cruz said overwatering puts potatoes more at risk for disease, which is why potatoes are grown in tunnels – so he can closely monitor soil moisture at all times.
How does he know he’s got it right? Cruz demonstrates how a handful of just-right soil should look. It holds loosely together like soft brown sugar.
Planting in stages is the key to maintaining a consistent supply of new potatoes, Cruz said. As one planting gets depleted, another is ready to go, while yet others are still frilled with surprisingly delicate, papery white blooms signifying more backups to come.
An organized and strategic plan for harvesting potatoes keeps the g process as efficient and productive as possible, enabling Cruz’s four-man team to gather 600 pounds of new potatoes in a single day.
The first men down the line cut the tops and vines.
The next carefully swing pickaxes to loosen the soil around the potatoes.
The last pull the potatoes from the ground in bunches resembling upside-down bouquets − with potatoes where the daisies ought to be.
The newly harvested potatoes are cooled for about two weeks before they are available for chefs. Cruz said this “curing” process helps harden the potatoes’ flesh, and strengthens the skins to withstand the rigors of the sorting room and shipping.
After that, they’re on the menu.
Most restaurants serve potatoes.
They probably taste like potatoes.
Some restaurants serve The Chef’s Garden’s potatoes.
Our potatoes have a little something extra. They taste like potatoes grown by a young man named Cruz who deeply trusts and respects the wisdom of his mother and father, who takes leadership and responsibility seriously, whose heroes are noble and brave, who cares for his crew as if they are his own family (because they are his own family) and who wouldn’t ask his men to do any job he hasn’t done himself, who knows each potato size, color, flavor and texture, and whose personal favorites are German butterball potatoes for roasting and smashing, and Dark Red Norland potatoes for frying, whose hands are hardened by work, but are still tender enough to calm a scared and wounded bird.
All of that in one potato.