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Spuds need rain, late freeze

INKSTER -- This spring was so wet that Mitch Jorde, a Cando potato farmer, couldn't start planting his spuds until June 4. He finished up July 3.

The planting period this year "was almost exactly a month later than normal," said Jorde, of Jorde Certified Seed.

Because his potatoes were planted so late, "We'll need a frost-free September" for them to develop fully before harvest, he said.

Jorde was among the 180 people who attended the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association's annual Field Day on Thursday. The event included field tours and presentations by area potato experts in Larimore, Inkster and Hoople.

"It's an opportunity for everyone involved in the area's potato industry to come together and take a look at potato research," said Andy Robinson, North Dakota State University and University of Minnesota Extension potato agronomist and one of the Field Day organizers.

The research, which includes work on new spud varieties that are more resistant to pests, ultimately could benefit the entire industry, he said.

In contrast to the research's long-term promise, many North Dakota and Minnesota potato growers have major short-term concerns about their crops. Like Jorde, they planted spuds late because of the wet spring and will need favorable fall weather to harvest a normal crop.

Overall, "Potatoes are 10 days to two weeks behind," Robinson said. "An early freeze would be disastrous."

Other late-planted crops in the area, particularly corn, also would be hurt by an early freeze, he said.

Recent hot weather that gave a needed boost to the maturity of some late-planted crops hurt, not helped, potatoes, Robinson said.

Potato yields and quality suffer when temperatures rise too much, he said.

Rain is vital, too, said Chuck Gunnerson, president of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, based in East Grand Forks, Minn.

Moisture would help in two ways: allowing potatoes to continue growing and making fields suitable for digging at harvest, he said.

The Red River Valley 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.

By and large, Minnesota spuds are doing better than North Dakota potatoes. The latter were hurt by heavy rains in northeast North Dakota, the state's core potato-growing area. Key spud-growing areas in northwest Minnesota generally avoided the worst of the spring rains.

Thirty-eight percent of North Dakota spuds are in good or excellent condition, with 46 percent rated fair and 16 percent rated poor or very poor, according to the most recent statistics from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Seventy-nine percent of Minnesota potatoes rated good or excellent, with 16 percent in fair condition and 5 percent in poor or very poor condition.

Inadequate moisture, however, has caused overall crop conditions to deteriorate since those statistics were released Monday.

Attractive red potato prices, which rose as high as $50 per hundredweight this spring, caused some North Dakota and Minnesota farmers to continue planting potatoes longer than they normally would, Robinson said.

The thinking was higher prices could offset the potentially lower yields resulting from late planting, he said.

Now, red potato prices received by area farmers have fallen to about $15 per hundredweight, Gunnerson said.

Selling red potatoes at that price can be profitable, provided farmers harvest "a good, average crop" with good, average quality," he said.

Some consumers complained this spring and summer about high potato prices in supermarkets.

The prices received by farmers have declined sharply, Gunnerson said.

Jorde, like other farmers, said it does no good to fret about the weather.

"We just have to play the hand we're dealt," Jorde said.