Growers Weather COVID, Viruses, Other Challenges

Published online: Apr 29, 2021 Articles, Seed Potatoes Karen E. Davis
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Source: KPVI

It was a mixed sack of potato news, what happened last year to seed potato farmers in southwestern Montana's Gallatin Valley. Due to COVID restrictions on travel and eating out, people ate fewer French fries and potato farms reduced the amount of potatoes planted for processing. Across the state lost $2.2 million last year, according to Montana State University's Nina Zidack., director of the university's potato lab.

On the other hand, soil tests for the dreaded potato virus Y (PVY) as low (always good news), and both 2019 and 2020 yielded great crops. 

So how are Gallatin Valley potatoes doing now?  

"The markets haven't quite stabilized, but overall, the industry it looking good," Zidack continued. "There's still some market uncertainty after COVID, but the demand in the U.S. is excellent for both fresh and processed potatoes. "There is just still some uncertainty, after COVID," she said.

Last year, Gallatin Valley farmers planted exactly 4,267 acres in potatoes. Statewide, farmers planted an extra 450 acres more than the year before, Zidack said.

A century ago, this valley's geographic isolation (surrounded by mountains) was one factor that gave it its reputation for potatoes. That isolation meant it took a while for Potato Virus Y to eventually infect the local spud market.

The virus' presence came over time, and probably increased in the 1980s and 1990s, Zidack said, when locals started raising more varieties that were more susceptible to PVY. It makes the potatoes smaller, affecting the yield. It readily spreads to other fields and is never really eliminated.

Here's how it works: The virus resides in the potato; the potato grows into a plant; an aphid feeds on the leaves and spreads the virus.  

"The weird thing is that it doesn't live for a long time on the aphid mouth parts; they just spread it around," Zidack explained.

Every year, the Valley's Dutch triangle of Manhattan, Churchill and Amsterdam grows some 45 percent of Montana's total potato crop, with the state producing almost 400 million pounds last year. About 150 million pounds of spuds are local.

Much of the local market comprises farmers who sell certified disease-free seed stock to other producers here and out of state.

Local producer Kimm Brothers Farming has a novel solution to virus-infected local soil problems: It is growing the certified disease-free seed stock obtained from MSU, and planting the first year of certified seed stock on six acres of disease-free land in Bridger, then bringing it back to the Gallatin Valley. 

That Bridger acreage has had no history of commercial potato industry, which means there is little virus spread, Zidack said.