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Published August 31, 2010, 08:13 AM

Making a spud future

WILLISTON, N.D. — Chuck Stadick doesn’t want to predict the agricultural future of the Mon-Dak region — the northwest North Dakota and northeast Montana region.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

WILLISTON, N.D. — Chuck Stadick doesn’t want to predict the agricultural future of the Mon-Dak region — the northwest North Dakota and northeast Montana region.

“No, we want to make the future,” says Stadick, who is one of the key experts the area has been counting on to help move the region’s potato industry into a new age of prosperity.

Stadick is one of a handful of leaders in this corner of the world who are pushing opportunities toward niche markets in potato products as the future for the region’s ability to attract a processing company.

If anybody knows how that can happen, Stadick probably does.

He started with J.R. Simplot Co. in 1977. He became the company’s raw procurement director. He came to Williston, N.D., in 1989 when the area company was looking for a new plant. The so-called Mon-Dak area, along the Montana and North Dakota border came in a “close second” to Portage la Prairie in Manitoba.

At the time, the Canadian currency exchange rate was very favorable, so Simplot built its plant there in the early 1990s. At the time Stadick disagreed with the decision to put the plant in Canada, because he “didn’t think the accountants at that time could guarantee the company, long-term that the exchange rate would remain favorable. Obviously it hadn’t.”

In retrospect it would have been wise to put the plant in the Williston area, Stadick thinks, not only because of the better quality control but because of intervening currency changes and fewer complications in product movement.

“It’s easy to buy and ship potatoes from Canada into the United States, but it’s a lot tougher to go back across the border to Canada from the United States,” he says.

Stadick retired from Simplot in 2003. After a no-compete period, Stadick went into his own part-time consulting business called Spud Viking Potato Consulting. He works with growers to inspect their potatoes to make sure the inspection service in various states are inspecting potatoes properly. He also came to the Williston area when the officials kept seeking a potato processor for the region.

“We still have a lot to offer here where many areas don’t, any longer,” Stadick said, between stops on the recent Mon-Dak Ag Open potato tour.

Conventional to niche

The original goal was to bring a processor to produce conventional french fries for the quick service restaurant trade — McDonald’s, Wendy’s and the rest, Stadick says.

“In the last several years the market has changed drastically and there’s more and more french fryers that are interested in niche markets, meaning markets that nobody else is into, but with different types of potatoes to fit a certain market,” Stadick says. “There’s a lot of profitability in it, but it’s a short-term situation. (A niche market) might be with you for four or five years and then somebody else will be in the same market and you try and develop some other products that are new on the market that your competitors don’t have.”

Consumption trends in traditional french fries have been changing.

French fry consumption in the U.S. used to grow about 2 percent per year. The 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001 was one piece of a trend toward people eating more at home, and fewer french fries. That’s changed in the past year to a “slight increase” in french fry consumption, but much of that has been in niche products like roasted potatoes. Some of the french fry sales have been in different colored potatoes, including the “sweet potato fry.” Lamb-Weston has completed a processing plant for those in Louisiana.

“The conventional, white-fleshed, Russet Burbank type of potato actually has shifted a little bit to these niche markets, and those are the type of markets we’re trying to serve out of this particular area — but, have the flexibility, in the plant, that if the market avails itself, to also produce the conventional Russet Burbank white-fleshed french fry,” Stadick says.

MN15620, a stand-out?

A Minnesota variety, MN15620, is one of the latest great yellow hopes for the niche market, Stadick says.

“That one stands out both on the conventional french fry part of the business and the niche market,” Stadick says. “We can grow the potato to maturity and have enough length in the potato to address the French fry industry, only with a different color aspect to it. It also fits the niche market because we can grow the potato, planted closer together, and get those real small potatoes — like a 2-inch potato — you can fit on these plates that you usually eat with steaks, prime rib, in the high end restaurants.”

MN15620 has been on the varietal lists for many years. Stadick and company simply took it off the shelf for an emerging market need. They got enough seed to grow out on the test plots east of Williston.

Bill Sheldon, a potato grower in Ray, N.D., is helping to increase the variety, and was one of the farmers on the Mon-Dak tour that probably would benefit from the diversification that this kind of potato would provide.

Sheldon traditionally grows traditional Russet Burbanks for Simplot’s plant in Grand Forks, N.D. This year Sheldon grew out about 1.5 acres of the new MN15620s. He treated the variety exactly as he did his Russet Burbanks, and says they look excellent so far.

“It’s kind of a promising variety,” Sheldon says. “I doubt we’ll see them anytime soon for processing, but I think they’ll find a market somewhere.”

Sheldon and his brother Bob, originally from nearby Tioga, N.D., started farming with irrigation while Bill was in ag engineering at North Dakota State University in Fargo. He graduated in 1971 while Bob was still in the Service. The brothers started with beef cattle and irrigation for cattle feed. The Sheldons amicably split their operations in the 1980s as Bob started making a place for his sons.

Bill has grown potatoes since 1997, and has averaged about 600 acres of spuds under irrigation. He also grows soybeans, corn, malting barley and a little alfalfa. This year, however, Bill says he only grew 220 acres of potatoes. Part of that is because he doesn’t store any potatoes. He also chalks much of this up to the economic recession. They didn’t need as many early digs for plant start. But he acknowledges that one reason is that Cavendish Farms of Jamestown, N.D., has cut back on its growers.

“I expect I’ll get some acres back next year, I don’t know,” Sheldon says.

Chasing Sakakawea

Bill offered a tour of his irrigation setup, which he says has been a challenge in the past two years.

Seven of his 12 pivots are served primarily with water drawn from Lake Sakakawea, which has risen 43 feet in the past two years. His system is a “volume pump” that lifts water 35 feet up the hill just far enough to put it into a concrete-lined ditch. The ditch initially was built in the early 1970s for a “linear” irrigation system.

In 1986, he started shifting to a pivot irrigation system. Now, the concrete ditch serves only as a conveyance system for the water, a reservoir for a “booster” pump that feeds the water into the pivots. He installed metal covers to try to keep the ditch clean of algae or debris. On land he rents, the pivots are well-fed, however. The NDSU Experiment Station, on the other hand, is pressurized at 70 pounds per square inch, and can be fed either from the lake or from high-volume wells. In the particularly dry years recently, Sheldon was fortunate the experiment station wells had some excess capacity, which he was able to lease to help keep his irrigators going.

The MN15620 variety, of course, is about landing and securing a new market that makes the irrigation pay off.

Both University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University breeders are in the Williston area with their projects.

“We look at hundreds of varieties every year,” Stadick says. “What I look at is the specific gravity part of the spectrum of quality, of whether it produces high sugars, what kind of starch content — all these qualities that make for a good french fry.” This one stood out because of the skin color which is pinkish-red and the yellow flesh.

They’re trying to produce enough MN15620 seed to get a larger acreage to serve both fresh and fench fry markets.

Dotting I’s, crossing T’s.

Stadick says the breeders are cleaning up the seed through the Valley Tissue Culture of Halstad, Minn. Owner Sandi Aarestad is developing the mini-tubers that will be given to the local seed grower in Williston, Enander Seed Farm. They’ll grow the seed and certify it, and from there it will go to commercial state so growers such as Don Steinbeisser or Bill Sheldon can grow it commercially.

“From there, we’ll ship it off to storage and we contact our friends at the fresh pack and french fry facilities and tell them this is the amount of potatoes we have, and we have enough for your test markets,” Stadick says.

It takes about one semi-trailer full of potatoes to run a market test through a fresh packer. It takes a semi-load to run through the processing phase — but maybe two or three for a market test, depending on the size of the market.

Most of the companies that have testing facilities actually are mini-processing plants, Stadick says. The test potatoes would be sent to those plants. The product is tested for taste and texture. The companies have testing committees that must approve the potatoes before more are grown for a test run in a french fry plant and then into a test market.

All of this is a culmination of a process that’s taken several years.

“We’ve crossed a lot of T’s and dotted a lot of I’s,” Stadick says. “We’re getting close. It would help if the french fry market would pick up a little bit more, but I think a couple more years, I look for somebody to be back here building a plant. Hopefully we’ll get this thing off first base.”

Stadick is thinking that a plant that might locate in the Williston area would process about 150 million to 200 million pounds of potatoes a year, and run about 300 days. That would involve the production of about 8,000 to 10,000 acres. Currently, there is only about 800 acres of potatoes in the area.

There are plentiful acres available for irrigation to grow more spuds, Stadick says.

“Plus, they have excellent rotational crops here that will go with potatoes. We like to see a four-year rotation with the spuds,” Stadick says.

Everything is in place as far as infrastructure — the people to make the industry run, engineers and raw procurement expertise. “We’re just waiting to fire the shot when somebody asks us to,” Stadick says.

Advantages remain

Among the over-arching advantages for the Mon-Dak area is its freight advantage, compared with prominent Pacific Northwest growing areas. Most of the markets for the fresh pack and french fry producers are east of the Mississippi. Williston is a lot closer to those markets than any of the Pacific Northwest producers, so that can save a lot of money on freight.

The beautiful aspect to the Mon-Dak region is that the potential for raw production has to come first, Stadick says.

“If you can’t produce the potatoes — have enough energy, enough water to irrigate, the right type of sandy loam soil to do it — there’s no reason to build a plant there,” Stadick says. “This particular area is the last frontier for potatoes because there’s plenty of water here with the Missouri River system, there’s beautiful sandy loam soil conditions, similar to south-central and southwest Idaho. Rainfall averages 14 to 16 inches a year, which is favorable for sprinkler irrigation, while the eastern part of North Dakota is 30 inches-plus. Idaho gets about 12 to 13 inches of rainfall a year.”

The development of sprinkler irrigation is appropriate for the amount of crops grown in the region. “There’s plenty of room for expansion, no doubt about that,” he says.'