Digging: Potato Needs

BY Mike Behrendt

As any parent knows one of the most terrifying experiences in life is being in a public place with a young child, seeing someone that is “different” than the norm, and wondering what in the world is going to come out of your child’s mouth for all the world to hear.  As much as we’d like to pretend that as Adults we’ve “matured” and know better than to say “they look goofy!” or “what’s wrong with that lady’s hair?”, if you’re honest with yourself you know that’s simply not the case.  As human beings it’s our nature to observe and focus on the unique. Anything perceived as outside the norm is focused on, studied, and questioned. Whether it’s through the lens of hostility, or simply curiosity we feel an overriding sense to come to some sort of conclusion about whether the things that seem out of place are potentially harmful or benign. 

Potatoes are Different

Those in the agricultural community are no different than society at large. Corn, soybeans, and cotton are all “normal” crops – they’re even referred to as a commodity. The majority of the time, these crops are grown without irrigation. They’re planted, sprayed a few times for insects or disease, then harvested. 

So, you can imagine the looks we get when the crazy potato guys come to town and turn the “normal” way of farming upside down. The dizzying array of soil testing, hilling, planting, side-dressing, re-hilling, irrigating, fertigation, weekly plant tissue testing, crop protectant applications, yield digs, and then harvest often times leave even the least inquisitive scratching their heads. What’s with all the spraying? Is that even needed? How in the world can a crop need that much water?  Why do those guys only want sandy ground? Why in the world are they harvesting after 2” of rain?!

These are all legitimate and natural questions to ask, especially for those that have never seen a crop that requires a management approach as intensive as potatoes.

Potato Land

Let’s start with the land itself. Why do we covet irrigated, sandy soils to produce our products? There is really a simple answer to this question - reliability.  One of the services we provide our customers is a continuous supply of the highest quality product produced in an economically and environmentally sustainable fashion.  In order to make certain we can deliver on this commitment we need to be able to control as many facets of the production cycle as possible. Irrigated sand is the perfect medium to achieve this. In this environment we have the ability to apply just the right amount of water and fertilizer that the crop needs while having protection against large rain events keeping the soil too wet for too long. This is not only an advantage when growing the crop, but also during harvest. Our customers simply can’t shut down their potato chip plants or grocery stores because it rained on one of our farms. We have to have the ability to deliver on our promise of reliability.

So Much Water

Next let’s talk about that wonderful natural resource we all love, water.  Often times we get asked, “Why in the world do you guys need so much water?” I usually answer this question with a question of my own, “Are you referring to the total amount of water we apply, or how often we apply it?”. There is certainly a difference. Our farms, we utilize the newest technologies in soil moisture monitoring and irrigation management. These array of electronic sensors and analytic tools allow us to more precisely schedule irrigation to the actual needs of the plants, ensuring we deliver just the right amount at the right time. So, rather than applying 1” every 3 days, we might apply .3” every day to more closely meet the actual needs of the plants and reduce surface water runoff or subsurface leaching. To the non-farmer driving by, it’s easy to see why the perception is that we are watering at a much higher rate - after all, the pivot is running every day! However, when you dig a little deeper you see that we are monitoring very closely exactly how much water is being applied, and how often to ensure our crop is getting the maximum benefit with the least amount of environmental risk.

Plant Health

The one issue most people don’t want to talk about is the question of crop protectants. When asked by a concerned member of the community “Why in the world do you guys spray so much? Is that safe?!”, most farmers will either turn and run or get mad and accuse the person inquiring of being a hippie. There’s actually a really good explanation that I think everyone with an open mind can understand.  The reason we apply crop protectants to our crops is quite simple: quality. 

We strive as an organization to provide the freshest, highest quality potatoes in the world to our customers. In order to accomplish this, we have to have optimal health plants. Much like humans, plants are dynamic living systems that are constantly under assault from all kinds of bacteria, fungus, and viral pathogens. Because of this, we apply crop protectant products to keep our crops healthy and disease free. We don’t take the application of these products lightly. We understand there is a lot of public concern about how food is produced and there is also an obligation on producers to ensure the food they grow is safe.

Prior to any crop protectant application, extensive scouting and planning is done to ensure only the right amount of the right product is applied, and no more. We vigorously track applications in our software systems to ensure all regulations are followed and nothing is applied too close to a harvest operation.  Additionally, we test our potatoes for crop protectant residue prior to harvest to ensure the fields we are harvesting are free of any potential contaminants. All of this is done to provide the highest quality, freshest potato products available anywhere. 


There’s a Reason

So, next time you see someone doing something differently - ask them about it.  Don’t be afraid to question things outside of the norm, just keep an open mind…. There may just be a good reason that lady in the grocery store has purple hair.