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Potato farmer hits 'favorite time of the year' with flowering

"This is probably my favorite time of year as a farmer," said Thomas Shephard. "It's just beautiful around. With the potatoes, some people have come out in the summertime and think maybe we grow flowers because they look so beautiful."

A man in a t-shirt and a baseball cap stands behind a flowering potato plant.
Thomas Shephard said potato flowering is his favorite time of year as a farmer.
Zach Hoffner / Agweek
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Editor's note: Katie Pinke will be checking up with Thomas Shephard throughout the growing season as part of our Follow a Farmer series.

CRYSTAL, N.D. — After a slow start this spring, things are looking good on the Shephard Farm in northeast North Dakota, where potatoes were in full bloom in early July.

"This is probably my favorite time of year as a farmer," said Thomas Shephard. "It's just beautiful around. With the potatoes, some people have come out in the summertime and think maybe we grow flowers because they look so beautiful."

Flowering, Shephard explained, means the tubers are starting to grow into "sets" of potatoes. The Shephards like for their potatoes to have plenty of sets, which indicate higher yield, but potatoes that are of consistent size.

The time of flowering also is the time of row closure.

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A potato plant in flower, with a white flower with yellow at its heart.
Flowering potatoes are a sign that potatoes are growing under the soil.
Zach Hoffner / Agweek

"We don't want to be able to see any dirt in between the potatoes," Shephard explained. "We just want to see a field of flowers. That's a good chance that it's going to be quite a good yield, and you've got a good crop in that field."

The Shephards work hard this time of year to keep potato disease at bay.

"So here on our farm, we take disease pressure on potatoes really seriously," Shephard said. "It's something that if you don't keep your eye on it, it can really be a detriment or wipe out your crop. So what we do is, we're constantly watching our potatoes for late blight and spraying them up to weekly this time of year, just so we can keep them in the best shape we can until harvest rolls around."

Between flowering and harvest, the Shephards will "hill" the potatoes, which he explained involves using eight-row machines to make a box of dirt around the potato plants. That keeps light from hitting the potatoes to potatoes from emerging from the soil and turning green. It also helps with weed pressure, he said. However, the timing has to be right, because hilling the potatoes too early can take away a little "oomph" from their growth, he added.

Despite late planting, Shephard said the potato crop is shaping up to be a good one, with harvest coming around mid-September. A wetter year like this one tends to mean better yield than a drought year like 2021, but it also increases disease pressure.

"God's in control and we just do what we can," Shephard said.

Along with potatoes, the farm raises wheat, corn, soybeans and edible beans. Shephard said the farm is nearing wheat harvest, and so far, everything is looking good. The diverse rotation allows for a spread-out harvest and also allows the land to carry over fewer diseases to the potatoes.

"We always have four years in between when we grow potatoes," Shephard said.

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Rows of flowering potato plants are shown from above, with little soil visible between the rows.
Potato farmer Thomas Shephard said he looks for row closure to happen around the time of flowering, and seeing as little soil between the rows as possible is idea.
Zach Hoffner / Agweek

Shephard returned to the farm in 2015 after earning a degree in business along with biblical studies from the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, Minnesota. He farms with his dad, Lyle, who said he has a love for growing potatoes, though he jokes that most farmers "got smart" in the 1970s and '80s and got out of the crop.

Lyle is impressed with how his son has handled farming.

"I haven't taught Thomas a lot of things," Lyle Shephard said. "He's really surprising me in a sense. He understands a lot of stuff better than I do, and it's great to have him back."

Agweek will check back in with Shephard Farm at potato harvest in the fall.

Small white potatoes are shown in the soil.
Thomas Shephard said his farm strives for consistent-sized potatoes.
Zach Hoffner / Agweek

Related Topics: CROPSNORTH DAKOTAAGWEEKTV
Jenny Schlecht is the editor of Agweek and Sugarbeet Grower Magazine. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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