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Published September 05, 2011, 05:15 AM

Another wet year for area spuds

INKSTER, N.D. — Susie Thompson sometimes jokes that she needs to “breed in gills and snorkel gear” into potatoes.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

INKSTER, N.D. — Susie Thompson sometimes jokes that she needs to “breed in gills and snorkel gear” into potatoes.

But the North Dakota State University potato breeder is serious about responding to a long wet cycle in the key potato-growing area of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota.

“Mother Nature throws a lot of challenges at us,” she says. “I think we have to look at varieties that can handle standing water positively.”

Thompson was a speaker at the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association’s recent annual Field Day, which included tours of potato fields at Larimore, N.D., Inkster, N.D., and Hoople, N.D. More than 125 people attended.

Area farmers and others at the event agree that too-abundant rainfall has made this a challenging growing season for spuds in the region.

“I think we’re going to come up with a short crop,” says Jeff VanRay, a Pingree, N.D., farmer who grows irrigated potatoes for Cavendish Farms, which produces frozen potato products.

Heavy rains this spring hampered planting and caused many acres to drown out, he says.

“It’s hard to make up for the drown-up,” he says.

Overall potato yields in the Red River Valley might be down as much as 15 percent, estimates Chuck Gunnerson, association president.

Harvest just beginning

Gunnerson and others say it’s too early to have a good handle on the area’s potato production this year.

Because of the wet spring, potato planting was delayed and many spuds aren’t as developed as usual for this time of year. Potato harvest was just beginning, on a limited basis, at the time of the Field Day. Harvest wasn’t expected to start in earnest until early or mid September.

Weather in late August and early September will have a big impact on yields, VanRay says.

“We need cool nights to bulk up” potatoes before harvest, he says.

On balance, quality of this year’s crop is expected to be good, though more will be known after farmers begin large-scale harvesting.

For the third straight year, late blight — a highly contagious disease that can hurt both yields and quality in potatoes — has popped up in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota.

Potato farmers say they’ve monitored the situation closely and applied fungicide when appropriate.

Last year, late blight was widespread in the region, but turned out not to be serious, according to information from North Dakota State University.

Demand, prices good

For years, the U.S. potato industry was concerned about domestic potato consumption, particularly at-home consumption.

In 2000, Americans on average ate potatoes 79 times at home. By 2009, the average rate had fallen to 67 times, according to the U.S. Potato Board,

But more recent statistics indicate that consumer demand for potatoes is growing, says Justin Dagen, a Karlstad, Minn., potato farmer, and president of the National Potato Council.

“We’re seeing some very positive trends in potato consumption. So that’s good news,” says Dagen, who attended the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association’s Field Day.

Red potatoes are fetching $34 per hundredweight, a “very good price,” Gunnerson says.

The Red River Valley of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota 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.

The Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, founded in 1946, has about 250 farmer-members.

Despite the challenges of growing spuds, potatoes remain a good “niche crop,” VanRay says.

“They fit in well with a rotation” of other crops such as corn and wheat, he says.