Students help with potato harvest

Students on Shelley High School’s harvest break sort potatoes Monday morning for local farmer Merrill Hanny. Hanny believes smoke throughout this summer may have hurt the size profile of his crop, as well as yields.

SHELLEY -- Early in potato harvest, area farmers are concerned heavy wildfire smoke throughout much of the growing season likely hindered crop development, especially in Eastern Idaho north of Blackfoot.

Farmers statewide have been pleased by the "exceptional quality" of their spuds, which have been mostly free of defects and unmarred by disease.

Growers in the Shelley and Idaho Falls areas, however, worry their yields and tuber sizes may be down slightly, and they attribute the smaller crop profile to prolonged, thick smoke interfering with photosynthesis.

"The smoke did have an impact," said Frank Muir, president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission, adding the problem appears to have surfaced sporadically, mostly in Eastern Idaho. "I think we had smoke for so long it did seem to confuse the plants a little bit."

Shelley farmer Merrill Hanny, who raised 550 acres of Russet Burbanks for the fresh market, was in his third day of harvest on Monday. He estimates his yields have been down about 50 hundredweight per acre, and tuber sizes also appear to be smaller than hoped.

Current fresh-market grower returns, estimated at about $6 per hundredweight, aren't profitable for most growers. Hanny is optimistic prices will rise throughout the marketing year, as it appears the state will have a manageable supply, based on yields and planted acreage.

United Potato Growers of Idaho estimated the state's growers planted 311,000 this season, up 1,000 acres from the prior season. However, McCain Frozen Foods anticipates it will need about 12,000 additional acres of production this season to accommodate an expansion of its Burley processing plant.

"It looks like all of the ingredients are there for a better year for the grower," Hanny said.

Hanny times his harvest to take advantage of labor from Shelley High School's two-week harvest break, which started Monday.

"If we didn't have these kids from the high schools, I would quit raising spuds," said Hanny, who is using about a dozen temporary high school workers. "There's not a workforce out there to fill our niche."

Idaho Falls grower Marc Thiel plans to wait a week before he starts harvesting his 170 acres of fresh-market Russet Burbanks, hoping they'll bulk up a bit during the extra time. Thiel said he's normally harvesting by Sept. 27.

Idaho Falls farmer James Hoff said Monday he also plans to wait another week before starting harvest.

Idaho Falls grower Derek Reed has dug a field of fresh-market Russet Norkotahs, of about average yield and size. He's concerned, however, about the prospects for his forthcoming Russet Burbank harvest.

"I remember last year we had a smoky August and spuds were smaller," Reed said.

To the south, in the Pleasant Valley area, growers who raise spuds for processing are further along in harvest and have been pleased by the results.

Ritchey Toevs, of Aberdeen, said his quality has been "exceptional," and his tuber sizes and yields have both been "average to slightly better."

"I think there is more size in the crop than a year ago," Toevs said. "We talked about the smoke being tough on the crop earlier, but it doesn't look like it impacted our crop."

American Falls processed-industry grower Jim Tiede said his Burbanks "look really good," with decent size and "beautiful" quality. He said ideal harvest weather should also enable growers to store their potatoes for longer.

Neither Toevs nor Tiede expect their yields will exceed their contracted volumes -- a problem during big production years that results in "dumping" of processed spuds on the fresh market.

Muir said the Idaho Potato Commission placed heavy emphasis on improving tuber quality after last season's harvest, and it's apparent that growers heeded the message, based on the quality reports he's been receiving.

Muir expects statewide yields will be on the high end of the five-year average but won't set any records "because of the uniqueness of the weather and smoke this past year."

Muir said his organization has scheduled an early start to its marketing programs, including an early fresh potato display program for retailers. He believes the table is set for spud growers to make money with the current crop.

"The bottom line, with fresh (production) being down and processed being up, I think we have a right-sized crop," Muir said. "Prices should be very strong this year."