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Field of Dreams

What's new and noteworthy in the potato industry
Field of Dreams

A crop known for its robust taste and sustenance value, the humble potato’s profile continues to grow with new varieties, flavors, and culinary experimentation. With over 4,200 varieties and more developed each year, potatoes are the leading vegetable crop in the United States. Their destination after harvest is split 50-50 between going to processors for fries, chips, or dehydration, and those sold fresh.

Top Growing Regions
The Western states account for two-thirds of the U.S.’s potato production, with Idaho and Washington contributing over half of the nation’s total. Other states adding to the tally include Wisconsin, Colorado, North Dakota, Minnesota, Oregon, Michigan, California, and Maine.

Paul Dolan, general manager for Associated Potato Growers, Inc. in Grand Forks, ND, describes the perfect weather conditions for growing potatoes as “low 80s during the day into low 60s or 50s at night, little wind, adequate rainfall or irrigation, and dry periods in between for disease [prevention] purposes.” Planting is ideal at the beginning of May to June, with harvesting occurring in September and October.

Transportation Challenges
Transportation has been challenging for growers and shippers, with a lack of trucks as this biggest hurdle, though Dolan hopes the slowing oil boom in western North Dakota will make more trucks and drivers available again.

Peter Ewing, president of Ewing Farms, Inc. in Big Lake, MN, attributes the low volume of trucks to the ongoing dearth of drivers, and strict government regulations on trucking companies.

Dolan ships by both truck and rail, although rail has a few major disadvantages, such as buyers being unable to receive big rail cars because the tracks are too tight. In addition, restrictive timetables and maintaining quality during cross-country jaunts can be difficult.

Reinventing Mr. Potato Head
Potatoes have received their share of bad breaks, and Chuck Curl, sales operations manager for RPE, Inc. in Bancroft, WI, is frustrated by “the common misconception consumers have about the nutrients in a potato. As consumers trend towards healthier eating habits, the potato is often misinterpreted as fattening starch with empty calories.”

Harris Cutler, president of Race-West Company in Clarks Summit, PA, believes grower-shippers need “to reinvent the potato industry in this country” by highlighting the nuances and explosive flavor in many different varieties, along with their substantial health benefits.