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Red River Valley faces trucking shortage as it ships out potato harvest

GRAND FORKS — Red River Valley potato producers had a strong start to the shipping season this year despite a lack of available truckers.

But the trucking shortage likely won't improve as the holidays approach, industry leaders said.

Potato producers shipped more than 700,000 hundredweight of potatoes in September and October, a 32 percent increase over last year's count, according to the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association. That's slightly ahead of shipments at that time for the 2015 crop, making this year "the largest fresh crop harvest in many years," said Ted Kreis, marketing and communications director with the association.

"They started shipping early this year because supplies were running very low from central Minnesota from the Big Lake area," he said. "The other big reason was we knew we had a big crop coming in, so we had to make more room in storage."

But producers faced a trucking shortage in the wake of several hurricanes, Kreis said. Truckers were sent south to deliver relief items to hurricane victims. That left other industries, including potato farmers, with fewer trucks to send their products across the country.

"Stuff is still moving, but we are struggling," said Bryan Folson, general manager of Folson Farms in East Grand Forks.

Crops look promising this year, especially after 2016 brought a wet year and a poor harvest. Producers wrapped up the harvest in late October, and while final numbers won't be out for a few months, the industry overall expects an average to above-average crop when it comes to yields.

The quality of potatoes are better than recent years, Folson said, adding there are few potatoes with cracks or bruises.

Farmers also produced more yellow potatoes than in previous years, including 2015, which had a slightly smaller crop compared with this year, Kreis said.

Yellow potatoes made up about 21 percent of the Valley's fresh crop this year, an increase from the 15 percent produced in 2015, according to the NPPGA.

That doesn't necessarily mean red potato production is decreasing, Kreis said. Reds still are in high demand, and yellows tend to take away market shares from russet potatoes, which are primarily grown in western states like Idaho.

"Reds have gradually increased in market share, and even leveled off, in the last year or so, but yellows have been on a continuous rise for about seven or eight years—not a real rapid rise, but a steady rise," he said. "I think it is part of retailers promoting (yellows) more and, obviously, people like the appearance and flavor of them."

The Red River Valley produces the most reds in the U.S. and now ranks in the top five for yellow potato production, according to the NPPGA.

The shipping shortage likely won't lift any time soon, as producers with ties to the Thanksgiving industry will tap truckers to ship food, Kreis said. Truckers also will be used for the Christmas season.

"That will exasperate it because you have to get the turkeys to market," Kreis said, adding turkey shippers will "pay just about whatever they have to get those trucks."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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