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VIDEO: Wet conditions, late blight are concerns for potato growers

INKSTER, N.D. — In a normal year, Minnesota and North Dakota potato growers generally want late-August rain to provide their fields with one last shot of moisture before harvest.

This isn’t a normal year; more rain is the last thing many growers want now. An exceptionally wet summer, especially in key potato-growing counties of northeast North Dakota, have hammered many fields and could result in a 20 to 35 percent loss in some areas, officials estimate.

“It’s been a challenging year,” said Andy Robinson, Extension potato specialist in North Dakota and Minnesota.

The recent discovery of late blight, a potentially devastating crop disease, in northeast North Dakota adds to the challenge, he said.

Robinson was among the roughly 175 people who attended the annual Potato Field Day on Aug. 25. The event, sponsored by the East Grand Forks, Minn.-based Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, included field tours and presentations by area potato experts in Larimore, Inkster and Hoople, N.D. Lunch, research presentations and a tour of irrigated trials were held at the Forest River Colony near Inkster.

The irrigated potato research is conducted on Hutterite-owned land rented by the potato growers association. The Hutterite colony, which has a Fordville, N.D., postal address, has been irrigating since 1973.

North Dakota and Minnesota rank among the country’s top potato producers. The Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota — where the two states’ potato production is concentrated — is the nation’s leading producer of red potatoes and the only region that produces in volume for the chip, fresh, seed and process markets.

Area potato growers who contracted their potatoes, or sold them in advance of harvest, generally received a fair price, said Chuck Gunnerson, president of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association.

It’s too early to make predictions about the price of potatoes that will be sold on the open market. Harvesting fewer potatoes in northeast North Dakota would likely push up potatoes’ price, although it’s uncertain how much, he said.

It’s also too soon to predict how much of the crop — harvest of which will begin shortly — will be lost. Favorable weather up to and through harvest would hold down losses, officials say.

“Dry conditions and temperatures in the 70s would be great,” Robinson said.

Twenty-six percent of North Dakota potatoes are in poor or very poor condition, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In contrast, 10 percent of potatoes in the state were rated poor or very poor a year ago.

Late blight found

The recent discovery of late blight in a potato sample in North Dakota’s Pembina County was among the topics discussed at the annual Potato Field Day.

Late blight, which triggered the disastrous Irish potato famines of the 1840s, can hammer both yields and quality in potatoes. Though the disease has been rare historically in North Dakota and Minnesota potato fields, the region’s long wet cycle contributed to the disease flaring up in recent growing seasons. Wet conditions this year in northeast North Dakota, where Pembina County is located, have been conducive to the disease.

Some fields in northeast North Dakota, which averages about 18 inches of precipitation annually, have received more than 24 inches since late spring, according to reports.

Though it’s late in the 2016 growing season, area potato farmers need to stay vigilant, officials say.

According to extension service information:

“Growers should continue to scout frequently for late blight and apply protectant fungicides on a seven-day schedule, including fields that have been abandoned due to water damage. Scouting is especially important in fields along the Canadian border and in wet fields in northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota that may be exposed to late blight spore showers. This late blight has the potential to spread to unprotected and abandoned fields near the infected field.”

‘Good crop to grow’

Despite the challenges of raising potatoes, the crop is satisfying,too, growers say.

Sander Dagen, a 22-year-old sixth-generation Karlsruhe, Minn., potato farmer, attended the annual Potato Field Day in the past, but this was the first year he came as a full-time producer.

His family’s long involvement with potatoes — and their popularity with consumers — speak well for spuds, he said.

“It’s a good crop to grow,” Dagen said.

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