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Published April 20, 2009, 09:35 PM

Potato growers to move irrigated research farm to Forest River Colony

The Northern Plains Potato Growers Association based in East Grand Forks is moving its irrigated potato research farm from south-central North Dakota to next to the Hutterite colony near Fordville, N.D.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

The Northern Plains Potato Growers Association based in East Grand Forks is moving its irrigated potato research farm from south-central North Dakota to next to the Hutterite colony near Fordville, N.D.

The research farm bought in 2002 near Tappen, N.D., halfway between Jamestown and Bismarck, meant too many miles on the road for spud scientists working out of the northern Red River Valley, said Chuck Gunnerson, president and interim executive director of the Association.

The move won’t change a thing for the dry land potato research going on at the farm just south of Grand Forks, Gunnerson said.

The 330 grower-members of the association help fund research in developing new seed breeds and ways of fighting disease. They also represent a key crop in the region, although it’s a specialty item, not one of the main foods harvested.

Because the Forest River Colony of community-living Hutterites near Fordville was about the first place in the region where potatoes were grown under irrigation, the move makes sense, Gunnerson said. One of the largest irrigated growers, Carl Hovcrson, is an Association member based at Larimore, N.D.

“We have quite a bit of other research done in Larimore, Hoople and Park River,” Gunnerson said of the concentration of irrigation in Grand Forks and Walsh counties.

The Association is selling the Tappen farm to a farmer and leasing acres from the Forest River Colony.

All but a handful of North Dakota potato growers, as well as those in northwest Minnesota, belong to the potato growers group. The members last year raised spuds on 83,000 acres in North Dakota and 8,100 acres in northwest Minnesota, Gunnerson said.

Formerly known as the Red River Potato Growers Association, the East Grand Forks-based group had 2,500 members 45 years ago. But as potatoes have become more of a specialty and high-cost/high-return crop, the number of growers has fallen while growers have added acres.

The total number of acres planted to potatoes each year in the region hasn’t changed much over the decades, Gunnerson said.

But irrigation has greatly increased, especially in Grand Forks County, the past 15 years, because it doubles yields, at least, and guarantees a consistently sized spud instead of the variation seen in dry land potatoes subject to the vagaries of droughts and floods.

After the drought years of the late 1980s cut production, a few of the major processors of chip potatoes moved their contracts to growers in other regions of the nation where irrigation was more common.

That phenomenon helped spur the growth of irrigation in northeast North Dakota. But irrigated potato production in these parts goes to the frozen French fries and hash browns market, not to the markets for chips or table spuds.

While only 15 percent of the potato growers association’s members are irrigators, they produce about 55 percent of the total poundage of potatoes, Gunnerson said.

But because water use for irrigation is closely regulated by the state, there aren’t many more permits available for water or fields amenable to irrigation in the state, so the growth of irrigation has slowed.

Scientists from North Dakota State University in Fargo and the University of Minnesota, in Crookston and the Twin Cities, conduct the research on the Association’s two farms.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to slee@gfherald.com.

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