Washington Growers Struggle to Keep Up with Demand

Published online: Aug 02, 2018 Articles Keith Loria
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Source: The Produce News

The Washington State Potato Commission, headquartered in Moses Lake, Wash., has been pleasantly surprised by the weather and its impact on this year’s potato crop.

“It started out cooler than normal but has progressed into perfect potato growing weather,” said Chris Voigt, WSPC’s executive director. “Potatoes love warm days and cool nights. It has been perfect with the recent exception of a few hot days. We’re expecting excellent quality because of this weather.”One of the reasons potato growers in the region are successful, Voigt noted, is because they spend time constantly checking on their crop. 

“They perform weekly petiole and soil samples to insure plants are getting the perfect amount of nutrition, constant soil moisture monitoring, setting and monitoring pest traps  and making constant adjustments to account for changes in weather and the grow stages of the plant,” he said. “Our growers are all about efficiencies, and micromanaging the crop in order to get the quality and volume our customers need.”

Matt Harris, WSPC’s director of government affairs, noted export markets are growing 6-7 percent each year and the industry is struggling to keep up with demand. 

“We’ve simply run out of ground suitable for growing potatoes,” he said. “We either need to figure out a way to deliver more surface water to dryland or we need to focus on increasing yields without sacrificing quality. And we’re working on both. We’re supporting efforts to get Columbia River water to some wells that are going dry and are launching a new soil health initiative that will hopefully increase yields and quality.”

One big concern of the commission is soil health and how it can manage potato soils to reduce inputs while maintaining and even increasing yield and quality.

“On a science level, we are just now able to address questions regarding soil biology and ecology, the final frontier of agriculture, and attempt to manipulate it,” said Matthew Blua, director of community outreach with the commission. “Early focus in this area will be on cover crops, crop rotations, and augmenting antagonistic microbials, all designed to decrease soil-borne pathogens and pestiferous nematodes.”

For the potato industry, this is particularly challenging because the crop grows underground, and growers must disrupt the soil to harvest potatoes, relative to crops like grains that can be harvested without disrupting the soil.

Along with Washington State University and potato processors in the Columbia Basin, the commission is sponsoring a Soil Health Summit on Dec. 5-6 for potato industry professionals and scientists, hoping to increase the understanding and brainstorm ways to improve agricultural soils.

Other challenges include diseases, nematodes and pests. The WSPC is also co-funding research with USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture on a dollar per dollar match, through a competitive grants program aimed at reducing tuber blemish diseases that severely impact potato quality.  This year one-half million dollars will be available for this research.

“Potato growers must monitor insect pests and diseases, and make decisions when to treat or not,” Blua said. “These treatments must be consistent with the needs of buyers who are subject to regulations of countries to whom they export potato products. This all presents a very difficult context for farmers to negotiate.”

Brandy Tucker, WSPC’s director of operations and marketing, noted it is beginning a new campaign with athletes on how potatoes and athletics go hand in hand.

“We will be sponsoring not only marathon and triathlon events, but also runners who believe in the nutritious potato,” she said. “If it’s before their run or during, we want to see how athletes incorporate potatoes into their diets and touch base with folks who may still consider the potato to be unhealthy and show them the numerous health benefits the humble spud has.”

The commission is also going large touting school nutrition this year and has worked to create a number of foodservice recipes that incorporate other vegetables with potatoes and all types of potatoes from fresh to dehy to frozen. 

“We will be working closely with the Washington School Nutrition Association to see what more we can do to get more nutritious vegetable products served to the students of Washington,” Tucker said. “Although it has been proven that you could live a healthy lifestyle with potatoes in your life, folks still seem to see it as a negative carbohydrate instead of the complex healthy carb it is.  We strive to get that message out there that the potato has more potassium than a banana, is loaded with vitamin C and so many other nutrients your body needs.”