Yes, potato growing is highly mechanized. But each one of those machines needs a driver/operator.
Harvest typically required two (2) windrower operators, one (1) harvester operator, one (1) person hand sorting one the harvester and one (1) field truck driver for continuous truck loading. There is no “grain bin” such as a combine has. Volume wise this is more like chopping silage. But potatoes bruise. Easily!!!
Shuttling trucks from the field to the storage takes anywhere from one to three people (1-3) depending upon distance, more if the crop is heavy or the fields are far.
The potato storage required four to six (4-6) people to manually sort as the potatoes went across conveyors to be piled in bins. Depending upon the “trash load”; rocks, sticks, bruised potatoes, dirt, etc. more people might be needed.
Just for harvesting 400-500 acres this tallies ten to fourteen (10-14) people so far.
Now that the potatoes are in the storage they need to be checked a couple of times a day to maintain their temperature and moisture In the fall potatoes need to be cooled to make them go dormant so that they do not sprout in storage Sprouted potatoes will knit themselves together into an awful mess. Ideally potatoes want to be kept just above freezing 36-38 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity needs to be kept up so that they do not shrink. This is why underground storages/cellars were so popular because they were naturally cool and moist.
Shipping potatoes is also labor intensive. Especially when compared to shipping grain. With both you might hire a trucker or ship it yourself on your own truck(s). But instead of one person running a grain auger at a bin site you have six (6), or more, people in the packing house. One (1) person shoveling potatoes into bulk trucks at the storage with a loader tractor. Shoveling potatoes is partly skill, technique, and an art. If you “crowd” a pile with the loader like you would digging sand, gravel, silage, etc. potatoes will get smashed and bruised! The person loading trucks will generally be bringing them from the storage to the packing house. Four (4), or more people are going to be on the “grading line” manually sorting potatoes. This is where you get to find out how well you stored your potatoes and loaded them back out. Another (1) person is piling the bulk potatoes into a semi trailer, constantly adjusting the conveyor to maintain a uniformly distributed load that axles out weight wise. The conveyor should be adjusted frequently so that potatoes are not dropping any great distance and going “splat”! A cushion is placed underneath the potatoes as the load is started and worked upwards until a pile is formed to maintain a four to six inch (4-6”) MAXIMUM drop. Less drop is always ideal. Bagged potatoes and exponentially more work than bulk.
Planting is a bit simpler because the volume is lesser. One (1) person driving the planter and another (1) person shuttling cut seed to the field in bulk body trucks. At the packing house there are a few (2-3) people running the seed cutting line. More people are required if bagged seed is being used that has to be opened and dumped into the hopper by hand.
As was mentioned earlier, this whole operation is hard on equipment due to operating in abrasive soils, so a well equipped repair shop is required to keep everything running. As too is a good service truck for repairs that need to be made in the field. Any rainy days are spent in the shop doing preventative maintenance. There is always an “Empty Hands List”.
After the spuds are in the ground they need to be cultivated or hilled to keep dirt mounded up over them so that they do not grow up, out of the ground and get sunburnt, turning a green color. We typically had three (3) different cultivators running simultaneously. One set for light hilling action to start with, another set for medium action, and the last pass threw up the most dirt.