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Published February 22, 2011, 09:30 AM

Minnesota grower serving as president of National Potato Council

Justin Dagen grows a half-dozen crops. But he doesn’t hesitate when asked which one is his favorite.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Justin Dagen grows a half-dozen crops. But he doesn’t hesitate when asked which one is his favorite.

“Seed potato definitely is. There’s just a dynamic to potatoes that’s pretty unique, and I really enjoy it the most,” he says.

Dagen, a fifth-generation farmer from Karlstad, Minn., was elected president of the National Potato Council earlier this year. The nonprofit trade group, based in Washington, promotes the economic health of U.S. potato growers on federal legislative, regulatory,

“We have many different issues on our radar screen,” he says.

One of the key issues is a proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to limit starchy vegetables in school menus.

“We believe the decision was not based on good science. We’re working hard to make sure children have the best possible choices in nutrition available to them, and potatoes are a significant source of that,” he says.

Increasing access for U.S. potatoes into Mexico is another priority, he says.

“Currently, we’re limited in where and how much we can ship into Mexico,” he says.

Overall, the United States has enjoyed “slow and steady” growth in spud exports, with about 15 percent of the U.S. crop sold abroad, he says.

Potato groups were part of a specialty crop coalition that lobbied successfully for research funds in the 2008 farm bill, Dagen says.

“We were thankful for that,” he says.

Deep roots in farming

Dagen, 51, began farming when he was 17. He’s been continuing the family tradition since.

“My ancestors came from Germany and ended up in my township in 1882. It’s Springbrook Township and Kittson County. I’m really thankful for the opportunity to farm and raise a family there,” he says.

Besides seed potatoes, he raises wheat, corn, sugar beets, edible beans and soybeans.

“Crop rotation is a big management tool on our farm,” on 2,000 acres, he says.

His family has been selling seed potatoes for 75 years.

He sells seed potatoes — reds, white and Russets — to 15 customers, including both producers of fresh potatoes and growers who have contracts with chip companies. He sells across most of the countries, with about half of the sales coming in the Red River Valley of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota.

“With many of them (customers), I’m going on 20, 30 years in these relationships. I visit these guys every year. We stay in contact, so I’m sensitive to what their needs will be as varieties change and as markets change,” he says.

Cold winters on the Northern Plains are hard on pathogens and consequently good for the seed potato business, he notes.

He stores his seed potatoes in the fall and typically ships them out to customers the following spring, when they’re planted.

Valley is a key player

The Red River Valley has what Dagen calls “a deep and storied history in potatoes.”

Today, the region is the nation’s only large-volume producer for the chip, fresh, seed and process markets, says the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, based in East Grand Forks, Minn.

Dagen thinks potato acres in the Red River Valley will remain stable this year, despite high prices for competing crops such as wheat and corn, because demand for potatoes remains strong.

Potatoes have the reputation of being an insular market, one that stands apart from others.

The reputation is deserved, as is spuds’ historic reputation of being volatile, he says.

“There were years of extreme volatility. That was the potato business for many years,” he says.

But recently, “there’s been more stability coming in. That’s what I’ve tried to achieve with my customers. I’ve tried to take out the extremely high prices or the extremely low prices and just have a reasonable cost level that both of us can live with,” he says.

The ongoing wet cycle on the Northern Plains has complicated growing potatoes.

“Potatoes do not like wet conditions — not the type of wet associated with 5 inches of rain in a 24-hour period,” Dagen says.

He began tiling a few years ago to help manage wet conditions.

Some area residents think tiling contributes to flooding.

That misperception “is an education issue that I really believe we will overcome,” he says. “There’s engineering numbers that are just so clear that tiling land effectively creates a retention area” that mitigates flooding.

His national role

Dagen served on the National Potato Council’s board of directors for 15 years. He spent five years on its executive committee, which consists of five vice presidents, and was elected president-elect a year ago, becoming president in January.

The National Potato Council’s summer board directors meeting will be held in June in Grand Forks, N.D. Typically, the summer meeting is held near the president’s home.

About 200 or 300 people are expected to attend the meeting in Grand Forks.

Dagen says he sees a bright future for potatoes, both in the Red River Valley and nationally, because of “potatoes’ ability to produce food per acre. When it comes to feeding people, potatoes have a significant capacity.”

Dagen says he hopes his sons one day will become farmers.

“And I hope that through my involvement with the National Potato Council, they can inherit a potato industry that’s healthy and vital. That’s part of why I’m doing this,” he says.