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Published August 27, 2012, 09:50 AM

Spuds: better dry than wet

A year ago, area potato growers were still weeks away from beginning a below-average harvest. This year, they’re close to starting what promises to be a good one.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

INKSTER, N.D. — A year ago, area potato growers were still weeks away from beginning a below-average harvest. This year, they’re close to starting what promises to be a good one.

“This year is so much better,” said Chuck Gunnerson, president of the East Grand Forks, Minn.-based Northern Plains Potato Growers Association. “The irrigated potatoes look very good. With the dryland (nonirrigated) potatoes, we’re looking at average yields and good quality.”

Gunnerson was among more than 150 people who attended the association’s annual Field Day on Aug. 23. The event included field tours and presentations by area potato experts in Larimore, Inkster, and Hoople, N.D.

Last year, the area’s potato crop was hurt by heavy spring rains, which delayed planting and led crops to mature later than usual. That caused potato fields to yield, on balance, 15 to 20 percent less than normal, Gunnerson said.

This year, the mild spring allowed growers to plant potatoes earlier than usual. That’s given the crop more time to grow and “bulk up,” as growers call it. Irrigated potatoes, in particular, have benefitted, said Carl Hoverson, a Larimore, N.D., farmer and chairman of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association.

“The irrigated potatoes look great,” he said.

Nonirrigated potatoes generally have held up well despite the hot, dry summer. Many, though not all, area potato fields benefitted from rains in July during a key period in the crop’s development, Gunnerson said.

More rain now would bring only limited benefit for potato growth, but cool nights would help spuds bulk up before harvest, Gunnerson and others say.

Rain, however, would help soften the ground before harvest.

Area growers also appreciated not being hit with late blight, a crop disease that potentially can hammer potatoes’ yields and quality. The disease had popped up in the area in each of the previous three years.

Although area growers have learned to manage the disease, its absence this year was a welcome change, Hoverson said.

Prices, research

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 price area farmers receive for red potatoes has fallen to about $6 per hundredweight from about $30 per hundredweight a year ago, Gunnerson said.

That reflects good harvests of red potatoes elsewhere in the country, he said.

Other types of potatoes raised in the area were sold under contract, giving some financial protection to farmers who grow them, he said.

He described prices in those contracts as “fair.”

Area producers are optimistic despite the huge drop in the price of red potatoes, said Justin Dagen, a Karlstad, Minn., potato grower.

“We still believe in the future of potatoes and our industry,” he said.

Dagen was the 2011 president of the National Potato Council, which promotes the economic health of U.S. potato growers on federal legislative, regulatory, environmental and trade issues. He’s also the current Minnesota Potato council representative on the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association’s board of directors.

Hoverson said research at Inkster and elsewhere in the region holds great potential for potato growers. The work includes new potato varieties designed specifically for this part of the country.

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