Strange year for spuds

Tom Campbell planted his first potato crop when he was just out of high school. But Campbell, 57, has never seen a year as strange and challenging for area potato growers as 2016.

Tom Campbell planted his first potato crop when he was just out of high school. But Campbell, 57, has never seen a year as strange and challenging for area potato growers as 2016.

  “It’s been one for the record books. But we’ll put it behind us and never look back,” says the Grafton, N.D., producer.

  Freezing temperatures over the weekend appear to have effectively ended the harvest for northwest Minnesota and northeast North Dakota potato growers. The harvest - which lasted as much as two months longer than usual for some growers - brought heavy rains, soggy fields, rising prices and exceptionally warm temperatures in late October and the the first half of November.

  The crop year also brought wide variation in yields and profits. Growers who enjoyed average or slightly-below-average yields, and who didn’t contract to sell their potatoes earlier this year at low prices, will be able to take advantage of higher prices and do relatively well financially. Growers with poor crops, or who contracted their potatoes previously at lower prices, won’t do so well, officials say.

  The Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota-where the two states’ potato production is concentrated-is the nation’s leading producer of red potatoes and the only region that produces in volume for all of the chip, fresh, seed and process markets.


  North Dakota is the nation’s fourth-leading potato producer, with Minnesota ranking seventh. The Red River Valley’s combined potato production ranks third, behind Washington and Idaho.

  But heavy rains in northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota - some fields in North Dakota’s Pembina and Walsh countries received more than 40 inches of rain this growing season, twice the average amount - will cut sharply into the area’s potato production.

  Severe hail also hurt some potato fields in the area, officials say.

  By some estimates, the area’s potato production will fall 35 percent this year, says Chuck Gunnerson, president of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, based in East Grand Forks, Minn.

  Because the Red River Valley is such an important source of potatoes - especially for reds -  its reduced output has pushed up potato prices. Red potatoes now go for about $20 per hundredweight, roughly twice what they were year ago.

  “The true law of supply and demand is kicking in,” Campbell says, adding that potatoes, even at the higher prices, are still a good deal for consumers.

  Potatoes are planted on far fewer acres than crops such as wheat, corn and soybeans and consequently don’t get as much attention as those crops. But potatoes are exceptionally productive per acre, so the crop is important, both regionally and globally, says Andrew Robinson, the Fargo, N.D.-based potato specialist with the North Dakota State University and University of Minnesota extension services.


‘Mixed bag’  Chipping potatoes, or ones grown for chip processing, typically are grown under contract, so farmers who raise them didn’t benefit from the rising prices, Gunnerson says.

  But higher prices on the open market will help to offset poorer yields for other potato farmers, he says.

  Highly variable yields cloud assessments of who will benefit from higher prices, however.

  “Some producers have been hit very, very hard, while their neighbors haven’t had it as bad and may have reasonable yields,” Gunnerson says. “It’s such a mixed bag.”

  Some growers harvested only 40 percent of an average crop, with others harvesting as much as 90 percent, Campbell estimates.

  “If you can harvest two-thirds of a crop or even half a crop, you can still come out (financially, because of the higher prices),” he says.

  The quality of some potatoes was hurt because they were in fields so long, and those will be sold for a greatly reduced price on the secondary market, Campbell says.

  He also says crop insurance will ease part of the sting for some growers.


  Unharvested acres

Potato industry officials wonder how many acres of their crop went unharvested this year. As much as 35 percent to 50 percent of potatoes acres in some areas were too wet to harvest, according to some unofficial estimates.

  The official estimate, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, is that 64,000 of 80,000 potato acres planted in North Dakota this year will be harvested.

  NASS is sticking with that number for now, but will consider revising it, if warranted, early next year, says Darin Jantzi, North Dakota state statistician.

  Coming up with an accurate estimate is difficult because some area potato farmers were able to harvest most of their potatoes, while other growers were hit hard, growers and others say.

  The weather’s effect on yields “varies so much from farm to farm and even field to field,” says Andrew Robinson, the Fargo, N.D.-based potato specialist with the the North

  That reflects how spotty rainfall totals can be: A weather system that dumped, say, 4 inches of precipitation on one potato field - and that drowned out part of the field and hurt yields in the rest - might have left only a fraction of that on another potato field a short distance away.

  Heavy, frequent rains continued into harvest, further challenging producers. Farmers battled constantly soggy fields, picking away at unharvested potatoes when and where they could. That stressed both harvest equipment and  the people operating it.


  But the unwelcome fall moisture was accompanied by unusually warm temperatures, which allowed growers to continue harvesting - or at least try to harvest - their potatoes longer than normal, Robinson says.

  The  prolonged far-below-freezing temperatures over the weekend froze most, if not all, of the remaining potatoes, so there’s no point in trying to harvest more, officials say.

  Though potato growers welcomed the prolonged harvest, they’re not unhappy to see the crop season end.

  “Talking with the old-timers who have seen many, many crops, they say this year has been the worst,” Gunnerson says.

  “But we will deal with it.  We have some financially strong producers in that area, and they’ll be planting again next year,” he says.

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