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A Fresh Take on Potatoes and Onions

What variety and innovation look like for two stalwart staples

At Okray Farms, russet varieties (including Gold Rush, Silverton, and Norkotah) also dominated, comprising 88 percent of the total crop. The remainder was split between Red Norlands and Yukon Gold yellow flesh potatoes, as well as a very small fraction of newer or experimental varieties such as Mercury russets and Toscana yellows.

In the Red River Valley growing region of Minnesota and North Dakota, the emphasis remains on the cultivation of red potatoes. The area is the world leader in production of reds, which have been bucking the nation’s overall downward trend in consumption. The attractive, waxy potatoes, which hold their shape and color when cooked, have proven to be a favorite especially among chefs and restaurateurs.

In addition to dominance in red production, the area was showing gains in yellow potatoes as well, which represented 21 percent of the 2017 fresh crop, up from just 13 percent in 2015 according to the Northern Plains Potato Growers Associa-tion in East Grand Forks, MN. The gain was attributed to rising consumer demand.

Ups & Downs
Folson Farms, a 1,600-acre operation headquartered in East Grand Forks traces its involvement in red potato production back more than a century. Bryan Folson, general manager, remained excited about the color and quality of his 2017 crop, 95 percent of which was Dark Red Norland. He also noted that demand for Folson’s products (the company ships primarily to the southern and southeastern United States) was fairly stable.

For Folson, one of his constant business challenges is coping with unpredictable weather. Another not inconsiderable challenge was keeping current with requirements for the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Virtually all produce growers and shippers can relate to these concerns. For Okray, though, another shared concern looms even larger: “Without a doubt,” he says, “you’ll hear a common theme around the industry and that’s the challenge of finding and maintaining a good labor force.”

“The human element,” as Okray labels this piece of the produce puzzle, remains a fundamental stumbling block for growers, packers, and shippers. With the labor shortage dire in his area (the Midwest), Okray Farms responded to the crisis by completing a $2 million facility upgrade. The capital investment was spread across several key areas, involving TOMRA graders, multilocation touchscreens, and other state-of-the-art equipment to speed up handling and sorting processes.

Despite the ag labor crisis and a variety of other challenges facing potato growers and shippers, one trend boding well for the future was the rise of exports. For the July 2016 to June 2017 marketing year, exports hit a record of $1.75 billion according to Potatoes USA.