R.D. Offutt Farms’ Potato Field Days Successful

Published online: Oct 20, 2021 Articles Sheila Bergren
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Source: Morrison County Record

The first weekend of October, crowds of men, women and children, made their way to a large field outside Little Falls, Minn., to dig and keep as many potatoes as they wanted, for free.

The event, which lasted for three days, was part of R.D. Offutt Farms’ annual Potato Field Days.

Jennifer Maleitzke, director of communications and external affairs with R.D. Offutt Farms, said the Potato Field Days started as a way to support the communities where it operates. For the last seven years, the event has been offered in Park Rapids, Perham and Wadena and was expanded to include Little Falls this year.

Maleitzke said that over the course of two weekends at four farms, community members dug eight acres of potatoes (about two acres per farm) and gathered about 3,500 bags (about 300,000 pounds) of potatoes.

“There was a great turnout. At the Little Falls event, cars lined up early on Friday and people were digging all three days in the field,” she said.

R.D. Offutt Farms received many positive comments from community members, who were very thankful. Several also commented on the high quality of the potato, both when it came to quality and size. Some people also dug extra to share with their neighbors, she said.

R.D. Offutt Farms is a family-owned and operated potato farm, which is headquartered in Fargo, N.D. Maleitzke said that in the early 1960s, the farms founder, Ron Offutt, partnered with his father to grow potatoes.

“The initial idea for R.D. Offutt Farms began when Ron saw the opportunity to produce more uniform potatoes by developing irrigation and growing in Minnesota’s sandier soils,” Maleitzke said.

Later on, after Offutt recognized the need for a consistent demand for his crop, he purchased a small french fry factory.

Today, Maleitzke said, R.D. Offutt Farms and its partners, has 10 farms across 15 counties in Minnesota, including a farm in Little Falls near Ft. Ripley, where it rents land from a longtime friend and farmer, Bob Anderson.

There is a lot that goes into farming potatoes successfully, Maleitzke said. Because of the significant variation in soil structure, weather and other factors across the R.D. Offutt Farms in Minnesota, Maleitzke said the company believes the most sustainable way to farm potatoes is one field at a time. As a result, the company implements farming practices to maintain and improve soil health to make its farms efficient, environmentally friendly and produce better yields, she said.

In addition, R.D. Offutt Farms works with neighbors and other family farmers to rotate crops from one year to another, which has proven over the years to be a great practice for all involved. On average, crops are rotated every four years as rotating the crops improves the soil and its nutrient levels, breaks crop pest cycles and leads to healthier and more productive fields, Maleitzke said.

R.D. Offutt grows potatoes from its own seed, which is a multi-year process that begins in a greenhouse. The seed subsequently grows for three more seasons before it is ready for commercial planting. Once the potato seed is planted each spring, the company’s team of agronomists, farm managers and team members carefully monitor the fields to manage crop inputs and irrigation, Maleitzke said.

One example, when it comes to the Little Falls location is that for more than 30 years, turkey litter has been used as an organic fertilizer, a sustainable farming practice Anderson started. His long-time use of using organic fertilizer demonstrated that adding organic matter improves the soil health and water retention, and in turn, results in a flourishing potato crop, Maleitzke said.

“Working with Anderson, R.D. Offutt Farms continued to implement the best management practice at the Little Falls farm and began using organic fertilizer across other farms,” she said.

Because of its proven success, R.D. Offutt Farms has more than doubled its use of organic fertilizer during the last three growing seasons and are now working with the North Dakota State University to study turkey litter as a potential replacement for traditional fertilizers, Maleitzke said.

One thing many growers, including R.D. Offutt Farms,  have realized over the years is that irrigated agriculture is essential when it comes to meeting the country’s food production needs. Each growing season, R.D. Offutt Farms relies on soil data and constant weather inquiries to employ sufficient irrigation systems and water management practices to preserve groundwater supplies.

“Whether the growing season is normal or experiencing drought conditions, R.D. Offutt Farms only irrigates fields that need water, carefully measuring each drop,” she said.

Mindful of what is going on in each field, Maleitzke said scouts are employed to check the crop daily for moisture and to test the soil for water holding capacity. To conserve water as well as power, the company uses precision, center-pivot irrigators with drop down, low-pressure nozzles.

Potatoes are then harvested in the fall and are either sent directly to be processed or are stored to be processed later. Once the potatoes are harvested, R.D. Farms then plants as many cover crops as possible — another sustainable farming practice that keeps the soil healthy, reduces soil erosion, improves water retention and captures carbon in the atmosphere. Last year alone, Maleitzke said, the company planted 12,600 acres of cover crops.

Since R.D. Offutt Farms held its annual Potato Field Days, many people in the community have expressed a desire to see the free weekend potato dig return.

Aaron Buehler, who manages the company’s farm in Little Falls, said that he was very surprised and excited about the success of the potato dig.

“We weren’t sure what to expect the first time offering the dig in Little Falls, but we were so happy to see many members of the community come out to dig potatoes. We love being able to share a little of what we do in farming,” he said.

Because of the great success, Maleitzke said R.D. Offutt Farms plans to host another potato dig in Little Falls next fall. In addition, the company is also considering hosting the event at other farms in the future given the strong turnout and interest it has experienced, she said.