AMMON — Residents hand-picked 1,480 pounds of red, gold, purple and brown potatoes from dark, rich soil dug by an antique machine here recently.
Pam Olsen of Ammon invited her customers and the public to visit her farm named “On the Sunnyside” to see her single-row, horse-drawn potato digger, estimated to be over 100 years old, in action. Although modified with an axle and transmission taken from Model A and Model T cars to be pulled with a small tractor, the experience transported visitors back to a simpler time.
“I think a lot of times, there is nothing wrong with farming the old way. It may take a little longer and take more work, but sometimes the old reliable ways are just as good as the modern ways,” Olsen said.
Linda Loertscher, whose family ranches in the Bone area, brought her four grandchildren, Hazel, 7, Jarom, 7, Caleb, 9, and Josh, 12, to see the digger and pick potatoes by hand, the old-fashioned-way. Intrigued by the small, iron-colored machine, Josh and Jarom studied it as it creeped along.
“I really like looking at the way it works. It’s really different from anything we have. We don’t have a whole lot of modern farming equipment at our farm but what we have is a heck of a lot newer than this,” Josh said.
Olsen has duel careers. She’s been growing and selling flowers and vegetables for about a decade and has been a professional equine photographer for 43 years, photographing horse shows in Utah.
Over the years, as she increased the land she cultivates she found that harvesting the potato crop by hand was getting more and more difficult. To better handle the work load, it seemed logical to restore one of her parent’s old potato diggers. Olsen owns 4 acres of the original Hazen and Guila family farm and today she farms a large portion of it.
When Olsen and a long-time family friend Bob Olsen, who is no relation, couldn’t get the parts needed for the family digger, Bob Olsen located a single-row digger. The two Olsens put it to use for the first time two years ago.
The machine was already converted from horse drawn to tractor drawn, but getting it operational took some work. Grinding rust from the digging shovel helped with the digging part and tightening a chain helped move the potatoes along the chain-link belt much better.
“Bob knew a friend who had two diggers. His friend pointed out all the problems with each one. I had no idea what he even meant but Bob helped me understand and finally we picked the smaller one because it was in the best shape,” Pam Olsen said.
No stranger to farm equipment, Bob Olsen is an Ammon native and has been a service manager at Tractor Sales in Idaho Falls for nearly two decades. In his spare time, he custom tills gardens around the neighborhood. He met Pam’s parents when they hired him to till their garden due to their advancing age quite a few years back. Coaxing the old digger back into production has been interesting.
“It’s been a real learning experience,” Bob Olsen said. “The first year, it cut a lot of potatoes but it’s doing better this year. I use a tractor with narrow tires and Pam plants the potatoes good and deep so there’s no bruising when I drive over the rows.”
Olsen’s expertise has been invaluable over the years.
“He’s amazing. He’s really good to work with and when I have an idea, he always says; ‘I think we can do it.’” Pam Olsen said. “If he can’t find what we need then he’ll figure out another way or manufacture it. He’s very innovative.”
Since Pam has a teaching degree in physical education and a minor in math she believed the whole process would be educational, so three years ago she decided to invite the public to see the machine and learn its history.
According to her research the horse drawn potato digger was invented in 1856 by Canadian Alexander Anderson. The machine was originally pulled with two to four horses or mules. An iron seat on top of the machine allowed the operator to lift and lower the digger with a handy lever, she said.
“Kids seem to be fascinated in how old it is and how it works. It’s good they take an interest. I’m just happy with how it all worked out,” she said.
Pam Olsen raises five different varieties of potatoes: Yukon Gold, Huckleberry Gold, Red Pontiac, Purple Viking and Russet Burbank potatoes, along with six different varieties of garlic, twelve varieties of peppers, and 30 different varieties of tomatoes. She also raises onions, squash, corn, pumpkins and gourds and more.
After potato harvest is complete, she and several part-time employees will plant garlic and about 25,000 flowering bulbs. Each spring, she sells 80 different varieties of potted tulips, 20 different varieties of daffodils and 40 different varieties of lilies on a portion of the same soil her parents worked as she was growing up.
“I have to pat Pam on the back, she really works hard. I don’t know how she does it all,” Bob Olsen said.
Pam believes restoring the digger and sharing it with the public pays a kind of homage to the area’s first farmers who worked hard and invented machinery that helped ease the load and paved the way for modern farming practices. She believes their legacy is important and should be revered and preserved.
“My parents were the hardest workers I ever met and I never heard them complain,” she said. “My dad would be up late at night baling hay or changing water and then up again at 5 a.m., to milk the cows. I learned how to work from them. I owe them everything,”