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Jenni Boushey, sales and food safety director, and Zach Bruer, farm manager for A & L Potato, show potatoes in cold storage that are await shipment at the East Grand Forks business from the recent Red River Valley harvest. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

Potato crop looks promising as Red River Valley wraps up harvest

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — It's too early to say exactly how many potatoes the Red River Valley will produce this year, but it looks much more promising than 2016, the head of an area growers organization said.

The potato harvest wrapped up last week in North Dakota and is 97 percent complete in Minnesota, according to information released Monday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That beats out last year, when farmers struggled to get into the fields because of heavy rain.

"We did have a dry spell this summer where everyone was concerned," said Chuck Gunnerson, president of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association. "But because of the excessive moisture that we did have last year, we had a reserve built up in the subsoil, which seemed to carry ... the potatoes through in the dry-land growing areas, making it a very good crop."

Producers planted their crops in a timely manner and there were almost no excessive rain during the growing season.

Farmers near East Grand Forks, Minn., could have used more rain during the growing season, said Zack Bruer, farm manager for A & L Potato Co. in East Grand Forks. Still, the harvest went well, he said.

"For the amount of rain we had, which was barely anything, we were pleasantly surprised with the yields," he said, adding the yields should be average to above-average.

On average, the company and its producers harvest between 300,000 hundredweight (cwt) to 325,000 cwt in red and yellow potatoes, plant manager Frankie Vargas said. Those potatoes are sold as fresh table-stock, or farm-to-table, products.

This year, A & L harvested 400,000 cwt in potatoes, Vargas said.

Extra rain during harvest also helped farmers pull their crops from the ground, Gunnerson said. Overly dry soil can cause the dirt to clump, resulting in bruised potatoes.

Instead, the moisture loosened the soil, making it easier to harvest potatoes without much damage, Gunnerson said.

"We were blessed with quite a bit of rain at harvest," he said. "The quality (of potatoes) seems to be excellent."

Yields have been "very good" for the dry-land growing areas of the valley, where producers grow seed potatoes, red potatoes and potatoes used for chips, Gunnerson said. Those crops could see above-average yields, he added.

Irrigated cropland typically used to grow potatoes used for french fries likely will see average yields, he said.

In a few weeks, growers will have a better sense of how large the potato crop is, Gunnerson said, but it's already well ahead of last year's. North Dakota produced 21.6 million cwt in 2016, which was down 22 percent from 2015, according to the USDA. Minnesota produced 16.8 million cwt last year, up a percent from 2015.

"If you look at 2016, we probably only put 75 percent of our normal potato acreage into storage," he said. "We're going to be harvesting a full crop across 80,000 acres this year.

"We're looking forward to marketing these potatoes over the next 10 months."

In other news, North Dakota producers are 96 percent done with the soybean harvest and Minnesota is 95 percent finished with that crop, according to the USDA. Farmers in North Dakota are more than halfway through the sunflower harvest. Minnesota is ahead of its neighbor with 79 percent.

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