Red River Valley Potatoes Could Benefit from Rain

Published online: Aug 24, 2018 Articles Jonathan Knutson
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It's too late for much of the Red River Valley's potato crop, but many spud fields would benefit from a good rain, and soon.

"If it's in a day or two days or five days — rain would help," said Andrew Robinson, Fargo, N.D.,-based extension potato specialist with both North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota.

Weeks of warm, dry weather have stressed non-irrigated potatoes, and a shot of late-summer precipitation would boost less-advanced spuds. Rain also would soften fields and make them easier to dig for harvest, Robinson and others say.

Robinson was among the nearly 200 people who attended the annual Potato Field Day tour on Thursday, Aug. 23. Most of the presenters were NDSU and U of M extension scientists who discussed their work involving crop disease, insects and plant breeding.

Andy Robinson, extension potato agronomist, introduces a speaker during  Northern Plains Potato Growers Association Field Day.
The event was sponsored by the East Grand Forks, Minn.,-based Northern Plains Potato Growers Association and included field tours and presentations in Larimore, Inkster and Hoople, N.D. Lunch, research presentations and a tour of irrigated trials were held at the Forest River Colony near Inkster.

The irrigated potato research is conducted on Hutterite-owned land rented by the potato growers association. The Hutterite colony, which has a Fordville, N.D., postal address, has been irrigating since 1973.

North Dakota and Minnesota are among the country's top potato producers. The Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota — where most of the two states' potato production occurs — is the nation's leading producer of red potatoes and the only region that produces in volume for the chip, fresh, seed and process markets.

As is the case with area crops overall, potatoes were planted later than usual because of uncooperative spring weather. But the generally warm, dry summer pushed the crop, or accelerated its development, said Donavon Johnson, president of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association.

Now, irrigated potatoes generally "look great," he said.

A potato beetle crawls across the leaves of a test plot potato plant at the Forest River Colony.
But the extended warm, dry weather hurt many non-irrigated spuds, which the industry refers to as "dryland" potatoes.

"The dryland crop looked so good. Now we're looking at maybe average yields," he said.

Many potato fields are so close to harvest that rain now wouldn't help yields. But yields in some fields would still get a boost, he said.

Though summer weather worked against yields on dryland fields, it helped to hold down crop disease and promoted potato quality, Robinson said.

"We just haven't had many issues (that would have hurt quality) this summer. So the crop is really looking pretty good," he said.

One victory for potato growers: No late blight has been detected in the area's potato crop this growing season, Robinson said.

The potentially devastating crop disease, which can hammer both yields and quality in potatoes, had flared up in the area in recent growing seasons.

As of Aug 19, the last day for which information from the North Dakota and Minnesota offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service is available, 93 percent of the Minnesota crop was rated good to excellent. In North Dakota, 66 percent was rated good to excellent, 30 percent was fair and 4 percent was poor or very poor.

Potato harvest already is underway in south-central Minnesota. It's expected to begin in earnest in northwest Minnesota and North Dakota shortly after Labor Day.

Prices, tariffs

A potato plant in a test plot shines in the summer sun near the Forest River Hutterite Colony.

Current fresh-market potato prices aren't as high as area farmers would like, Johnson said.

Some 2017-crop potatoes remain on the market, pushing down prices. But area potato growers are optimistic that prices will rise when the old-crop potatoes are used, he said.

So far, trade tariffs haven't had a major impact on the U.S. potato industry. But the industry hopes that efforts to update and revise the North American Free Trade Agreement will be concluded quickly, Johnson said.

NAFTA, which went into force in 1994, progressively eliminated almost all tariff and quota barriers among the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Canada is the second-largest export market for U.S. potatoes, Mexico the third.