First Day of Harvest

A Look at Potato Production in Peru

Published in the September 2011 Issue Published online: Sep 14, 2011 Terry A. Tindall, Ph.D. Senior Ag ronomist, J. R.
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The first day of potato harvest outside of Pazos Peru was an exciting time to be in the fields for traditional villagers as well as their guests. Although at an altitude of about 13,000 feet (3,800 meters), those of us not used to these high mountains felt just a bit dizzy. The air was clear and crisp, slopes were very steep and soil was as dark and rich as one could imagine-a beautiful setting in which to participate and share ideas and thoughts where potatoes originated.

We found ourselves among a group of traditional potato producers who were working with native varieties that had been developed by Incan ancestors several thousands of years earlier in these very mountains. The group demonstrated tools for planting and harvesting and talked about fertilizer use and pest-control measures being used to help improve yields.

All of the work was done by hand, including tillage, fertilization, planting and applications of crop protectants as well as harvest and transportation. Although cultivating traditional potatoes, they were very interested in how to improve production-especially with the introduction of new varieties that might help them overcome disease concerns like late blight, which can be disastrous. They were also interested in advances in nutrient management, including the use of enhanced efficiency fertilizers for nitrogen and phosphorus.

We found ourselves in this picturesque and unique setting as part of a group working in the potato production areas of Peru. We were guests of TQC, an agribusiness company located in Lima. This particular setting was coordinated by an NGO from France that supported the traditional varieties of potatoes, processing them into chips and marketing them into stores in Paris and other parts of France.

This group was interested in organic production, but also recognized the limitations of such production in this remote setting. The coordinator valued the thought of producing organic and used the techniques, but soon came to a realization that organic production could only take production in these areas so far. Therefore, they were combining the use of organic inputs with some modern production practices.


Past Meets Present

The purpose of our trip was to begin to introduce some of the modern potato production technologies into this setting. The value and contribution of improvements would be enormous and very important in improving the lives of these traditional producers. How to begin the improvements is the challenge. The current production yield goals were about 9 tons/ha (50 cwt/ac). To increase this yield by small steps would be of great interest to the University of Idaho as well as the J.R. Simplot Company. That is the value of a team effort to move concepts forward even into these remote settings of Peru.

TQC, through our host and interpreter Manuel Yzaga, allowed us to share with them the challenges they face in making small but important steps in introducing technologies into their area of influence and to impact their customers. The day before, we had met with the Director for the Center for International Potato Development (CIP), the equivalent of a USDA Extension program for Peru. We talked about fertilizer use, placement and timing as well as the use of AVAIL and NutriSphere nitrogen in potato production in North America. Both presenters as well as those in the business of making recommendations for local growers had an opportunity to learn, share knowledge and provide ideas on improvements that could be made.

Later that day, we visited with a more-modern potato producer at a slightly lower elevation, but still more than 10,000 feet. Mesias Almonacid was farming on slopes at an incline greater than 30 percent. He was able to work his soil with a tractor (all in one direction, plowing at an angle), a fit that would make most producers cringe. His use of improved varieties, proper fertilizer rates, application timings as well as the use of crop protectants and a very productive soil have improved his yields from 9 tons/ha to almost 100 tons/ha within a 10-year period.

Yet he exclaims, "Although successful, I am still interested in knowledge and techniques that would allow me to improve my operations." All of his fertilizer use, planting, spraying and harvesting is done by hand and by villagers that depend on Mesias for local work.

Hand labor is not for everyone, and it's hard to believe from a North American perspective that much of the world depends on hard-core hand labor at wages that are hard to comprehend. Putting our salaries and hourly rates on others may be inappropriate. When I first traveled to developing countries, my thoughts were on how efficiencies could be improved with machines; however, many countries have people who rely on manual labor for employment.

Peru is no different, and displacing the work force with machines where other jobs are not available may not be the right approach at this time. However, the introduction of easy-to-incorporate techniques and inputs like improved genetics, fertilizer products and crop protectants may be both appropriate and easily incorporated into their cropping systems. A tractor or two and harvester would not be bad either.

We also visited the area of Huasahuasi, which is a unique potato-seed producing area of Peru. This area has been producing seed potatoes for many centuries. It is very remote, steep and terraced. Each terrace is worked by hand with tools that have not changed for many years; however, growers are interested in improvements related to varieties, fertilizers and crop protectants including nematacides, which could be introduced as a bio-fumigant, and how they could be incorporated into their production.


Simplot's Role

The J.R. Simplot Company has a unique set of technologies that have been researched in cooperation with the UI. These technologies are being developed to improve the lives of not only North American producers, but improvements in global settings like Peru. These include new plant genetics, potato storage programs and advanced improvements in fertilizers like AVAIL to improve Phosphorus and NutriSphere N to improve nitrogen fertilizers.

The objective of the Simplot and UI relationship is to work out how, when and where to introduce these products or plant materials, as well as recommendations to make them more successful. We are interested in developing a unique set of products and materials to meet production goals of a global society. There is no business or interest of more importance than food and providing improvements to food security. A joint interest between both the UI and the J.R. Simplot Company is to help produce safe nutritious food to feed a hungry world. PG