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Published August 21, 2014, 04:49 PM

Potato tour of RRV shows some need moisture

With harvest nearing, an inch or two of rain in the next week could make the difference between a pretty good crop and disappointing one for many area potato growers. “We could really use a 1- to 2-inch general rain to finish off this crop,” said Chuck Gunnerson, president of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, based in East Grand Forks, Minn.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

INKSTER, N.D. — With harvest nearing, an inch or two of rain in the next week could make the difference between a pretty good crop and disappointing one for many area potato growers.

“We could really use a 1- to 2-inch general rain to finish off this crop,” said Chuck Gunnerson, president of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, based in East Grand Forks, Minn.

Gunnerson was among the 175 people who attended the association’s annual Field Day Aug. 21. The event included field tours and presentations by area potato experts in Larimore, Inkster and Hoople, N.D.

Several participants in the tour noted that Christian Thill, a University of Minnesota researcher and potato breeder, died unexpectedly of a heart-related ailment Aug. 7 at age 53. They called his death a personal and professional loss and said they hope his position is funded again.

The Aug. 21 tour highlighted ongoing work with new varieties and efforts to make potatoes more resistant to disease and insects, said Andy Robinson, North Dakota State University and University of Minnesota Extension potato agronomist. He was one of the Field Day organizers.

Though great progress has been made in combating disease and insects in potatoes, nature continues to throw new challenges at growers that require further research, he said.

Insects haven’t stressed potato plants quite as much as usual this growing season. The unusually cold winter of 2013 and 2014 might have helped hold down insect numbers this summer, he said.

Late blight, a crop disease that can hammer both yields and quality in potatoes, was found recently in a field near St. Cloud, Minn. Robinson said potato growers should continue to scout their fields for the disease.

Because the spring was late and wet, many potato fields were planted later than ideal. But potatoes, a cool-season crop, generally have fared well during what’s been a relatively cool summer, he said.

Mixed bag on moisture

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

For now, potential yields appear average overall, though quality of harvested potatoes should be good, Robinson said.

But how much rain falls in the next week will have a big influence on the crop’s ultimate size and quality, he said.

Some parts of the RRV have enjoyed recent rains, while others have received too little moisture. Potato growers in areas that have missed the rains wonder whether their fields will have sufficient moisture to finish developing properly, Gunnerson said.

Tom Campbell, with Campbell Farms in Grafton, N.D., which raises potatoes and several other crops, said rain would help his potatoes, but hurt his wheat, harvest of which is nearing.

“In a perfect world, I could pick which fields get rain and which don’t,” he said.

He said “average” yields appear likely, but “it’s too soon to say. Ask me again when harvest is finished.”

The area’s potato harvest is expected to begin within a week, although harvest won’t kick off in earnest for several more weeks.

Blair Richardson, president and CEO of the Denver-based U.S. Potato Board, also took part in the Aug. 21 tour.

The U.S. Potato Board is the nation’s potato marketing and research organization.

This was Richardson’s first visit to North Dakota during the growing season, and he said it was helping him learn more about the area’s potato industry.

Nationally, the potato industry continues to make progress in educating consumers that potatoes are nutritious, he said.

Closer to home, area potato growers are concerned by the strike at the J.R. Simplot Co. potato processing plant in Grand Forks. N.D., Gunnerson said.

“Our hope is that it gets resolved quickly,” he said, noting that his organization has no influence on the outcome.

Nearly 200 union employees walked off their jobs at the plant on Aug. 4. The union objects to changes in the work schedule and to an increase in health care premiums and a switch from a pension plan to a 401(K) plan.

The Grand Forks plant, owned by Boise-based J.R. Simplot, makes french fries and other potato products, for fast-food restaurants.

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