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Frozen water stands in the furrows, between hills of stranded fresh potatoes at Folson Farms. Too many of the spuds were damaged and locked into the ground at East Grand Forks, Minn., by an 18-degree freeze on Oct. 31. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)

Cold took hold: RRV spud disaster is part of national short crop

EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. — The Red River Valley potato season was over on Oct. 28, and the Folson Farms of East Grand Forks left 60% of their of their spuds in the field.

Bryan Folson, 57, farms with three of his sons — Caleb, 28; Casey, 27; and Kyle, 23. A younger Riley, 21, is in college.

The Folson family has seen a lot of seasons, and this is one of the toughest. Bryan's great-grandfather started Folson Potato Co. at Hoople, N.D., in early 1900s and Bryan's father, Bud, moved it here in 1952 as Folson Farms, Inc.

Today, the Folsons specialize in red and yellow table stock varieties. This is also called "fresh" in the industry. The Folsons sell the A size — about 2.5 inches in diameter. They also sell Gourmet or B size potatoes,

The Folsons had hoped to dig a bit more in late October, but the cold took hold.

"The nail in the coffin was was 18 degrees on Oct. 31 — Halloween. That was after it had been a low of 21 the two previous morning. "It's very devastating," Bryan says. "It's really hard because you had a full crop and you get slaughtered at the end."

Short crop

Folson says there is a big potato shortage nationwide, this year. Idaho yields were off 10% to 20% because of growing conditions, followed by an early cold snap down to 13 degrees. The Manitoba crop is short, he said. With the supply shortfall, in the past three weeks prices generally increased 50%.

He subscribes to North American Potato Market News, a trade publication based at Meridian, Idaho, on Oct. 30 said that fresh potato shipments from the 2019 crop nationwide are expected to fall 11.19 million cwt. short of 2018 movement.

"Expected shipments would be the lowest (in) modern history," the trade publication said, specifying that "Red River Valley growers will leave 45% to 50% of this year's table potato crop in the ground," the publication said. Folson thinks some farmers in the northern Red River Valley will get 70% to 80% of their spuds, but he knows central valley producers getting only 20% or 40% of what they planted. Some zero.

The publication says Red River valley fresh shipments are expected to be 2.1 million cwt. — down 40.4 percent from 2018 and down 49% from the 4.1 million cwt. shipped in 2017, according to the Federal-State Market News. Central Minnesota fresh production could be down 12.5 percent at 1.45 million cwt.

Bryan sells some of the crop under contracts, but much under open market. You "swear to your own hurt," Bryan says, a biblical allusion to Psalms 15:4, indicating that if you make a promise, you must keep it.

Eye on spuds

Bryan figures 10% to 15% of his potatoes are frost-damaged.

The rule of thumb is that if even only 7% of potatoes brought into storage freeze-damaged from the field, the whole pile will be lost in storage, Bryan says.

He has enough harvested to cover his contracts. The Folson family has several storage buildings on the east side of town, all connected by a flume that feeds into a wash plant. The headquarters is just west of the American Crystal Sugar Co. factory.

The four Folson households manage about 2,500 acres of farmland in a given year, including about 1,850 acres of potatoes, some on land where others raise the rotation crops.

The 2019 growing season has been a roller-coaster. Spring planting and summer growing conditions were "pretty ideal," and the Folsons received a timely August rain. Some of the fields were yielding over 300 cwt., verus the average of 220 to 225 cwt.

They were killing the vines in early September, and had dug out 220, when "bam, the rains hit" on Sept. 20. From Sept. 1 to Oct. 22, the farm received 13.4 inches of rain, compared to an average of about 4.3 inches for the period.

On Tuesday, Sept. 24, they were able got another 150 acres harvested when another inch of rain came. Then they picked up 8 inches of rain Oct. 10-12. Even then the dug another 250 acres more, making about 750 acres total harvested. And 1,150 acres would stay in the field.

The 'fresh' deal

Bud built a small wash plant in the 1950s. The family built storage sheds in the 1970s. They added a new "wash plant" in 1987, and new buildings in the mid-1990s, and two buildings of 110,000 cwts. In about 2017.

The Folsons run primarily their own potatoes through their own wash plant. They sell "fresh potatoes" (as opposed to "process" potatoes used in factories such as the Simplot plant in Grand Forks, for french fries and other frozen products).

Bryan and Casey do most of the selling, going directly to grocery stores, restaurants and institutional clients—primarily in the South. They market potatoes under "Folson Finest" and "Red Spuds" brands, in 5-, 10- bags, and 50-pound paper sacks and cartons.

They typically have 10 full-time year-round employees and 10 seasonal. Instead of focusing so much on processing , they'll task the staff now will work toward getting the farm ready for planting next year.

They typically hire Grand Forks-area trucking companies with refrigerated trailers ("reefers") to get their crops to the market. The poor crop will mean less work for them.

Less spending

This isn't the Folsons' first crop failure.

In 1999 the Folsons left half of their crop in the field because of late blight.

In 2013. Caleb remembers leaving half of their crop in the field. It had been too dry, followed by two much rain.

The Folsons have federal crop insurance at a lower levels. In the past two years, they left 10% to 15% of the crop in the field due to scab disease — losses not compensated by insurance.

"Our insurance kicks in when you have 50% loss or more," Bryan says.

Input costs vary by producer ranging widely between $1,000 to $2,500 an acre.If a whole field is drowned out, for example, it pays only about 50% of input costs. To compare, prevented-plant insurance covers only about 25% of input costs.

The freeze-damaged crop l mean less income, and that'll mean less spending.

"You've got to be smart with the money you've got and don't overspend," Caleb says. "Just rein it in. The goal is to break even and put a crop in the ground for next year."

Competitors may have to service some customers, but the Red River Valley's reputation for good quality potatoes should bring them back, Bryan says.

And another thing.

Folson says the Lord Jesus Christ gives him peace. He quotes Job 37: 11-13, verbatim: "He loads the thick cloud with moisture; clouds scatter his lightning. They turn around and around by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world. Whether for correction or for his land, or for love, he causes it to happen."

Bryan explains why it'll all turn out right."My hope is in Him, and not in things of this world. That's easier said than done sometimes. But he's in control. (And a pause.) This year he chose to blast us a lot of water."