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Red River Valley Potatoes

Drought makes digging tough in Red River Valley

The potato harvest continues in the Red River Valley, despite some of driest conditions Randy Boushey has seen in his career.

The National Weather Service reported in early October the region containing Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn. — the center of the potato industry in the Red River Valley — is dealing with “extreme drought” conditions.

Boushey, president and chief executive officer of A&L Potato Co., East Grand Forks, said the drought is as bad as any he has experienced in the potato business.

“And, I’ve been doing this for over 30 years,” he said.

Growers across the valley have been harvesting spuds since early September, which is normal, according to the East Grand Forks-based Great Plains Potato Growers Association, which has a membership of 250 growers representing 80,000 acres in North Dakota and 47,000 in Minnesota.

Rock-hard dirt clods

Digging is not easy to do in dry soil that clings to the potatoes in rock-hard clumps, growers say.

“Can’t carry any dirt on the harvester, and you have dirt clumps that bruise the potatoes,” said Paul Dolan, general manager of Associated Potato Growers Inc., Grand Forks.

That’s the situation growers have been dealing with for months, even though occasional, widely scattered showers provided relief to some growers, said Ted Kreis, the association’s marketing director.

“From the northern part of the valley to the southern part of the valley there was quite a difference in rainfall,” he said.

That wasn’t the case for most of the area, according to the weather service, which reported most areas having received little rainfall from Sept. 13 to the end of the month.

Some counties were declared agricultural disaster areas due to the drought.

The weather bureau’s station in Grand Forks reported a yearly total of 15.39 inches of rain for the year, compared to a normal of 20.09. The city got 0.88 inches of rain in September, down from the normal of 3 inches.

The only significant drenching the city got during the growing season was 2.06 inches July 13, according to the weather service.

But higher-than-normal temperatures mitigated the benefits of the moisture, said Bryan Folson, general manager of East Grand Forks-based Folson Farms Inc..

“It was so hot, the evaporation was much more than usual, too, so that hurt the situation,” he said.

The digging goes on, but growers are having to leave some product in the fields, Boushey said.

“We’ve got stuff that we won’t let the grower dig even if he wants to,” Boushey said.

One of Boushey’s growers, George Cariveau, has been using digger chains normally reserved for mud in an effort to “shed loose dirt” during harvest, Boushey said.

“The chain has a cavity with links wide enough apart that I can slip my hand between them, and in return, he’s leaving the real estate (dirt) in the fields but also some Cs and Bs,” he said.

Some growers halted digging for a time and were “praying for rain” to give the potato quality a boost, Boushey said.

Growers say the crop they have been able to harvest has the quality they want, and when the deal is done it likely will be at normal volume.

“Yields are better than expected. It’s a pretty fair crop, actually,” said Cory Seim, a salesman with Hoople, N.D.-based Northern Valley Growers.

Prices could be higher

Most growers, on the other hand, say prices are less than ideal.

“The market’s is a whole lot lower than we’d like to see it, but it is what it is,” said Keith Groven, a salesman with Black Gold Farms, Grand Forks, N.D.

As of Oct. 1, tote bags of about 2,000 pounds of U.S. No. 1, size-A round reds from the Red River Valley were priced at $9-10.

A year earlier, the same product was priced at $22-23 — a result of shorter supplies because of too much rain, according Dave Moquist, a partner in and sales manager of O.C. Schulz & Sons Inc., Crystal, N.D.

“We had such a horrible year last year, anything would be better than that,” Moquist said.

The strong market of last year began to slide toward the end of the crop, around February, Groven said.

“It’s been a fairly continuous decrease in price since then,” he said.

The reason? Too many potatoes, he said.

“There’s going to be more potatoes not only in the Red River Valley but Idaho than there has in years past,” he said.

Kreis described the market as terrible in late September.

“The prices for reds are better than for russets and, thankfully, 98% of our fresh crop is reds, but prices could be better,” he said.

An ideal return would be closer to $14-18, Seim said.

“It’s common ground that everybody is making some money in the process and the consumer still has a good buy,” he said.

All in all, though, Boushey said he isn’t too worried.

“It seems like it’s a decent crop. We really could use some rain. Other than that, we’re OK,” he said.

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