AMERICAN FALLS, Idaho — Farmer Kamren Koompin said quality testing by his potato processor, Lamb Weston, consistently confirms Umatilla Russets make the best McDonald’s french fries, and growers willing to raise the variety are paid a slight premium.
But Koompin has found many growers in his area have given up on Umatillas, having failed to keep their vines alive long enough to yield crops with good size profiles.
Koompin — who raised his best Umatillas ever this season — believes he’s finally found effective Umatilla management guidelines for producing large tubers. Umatillas should be his most profitable russet variety this season. He also convinced some of his neighbors to give the variety another try.
According to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, the number of Umatilla acres has increased slightly in Idaho, from 2.1 percent of the state’s total spud crop in 2016 to 2.9 percent of the crop this season. Umatillas comprised 14 percent of Washington’s planted acres this season, and 13.1 percent of Oregon’s potato acres.
“Out of the original ones who started growing them in the American Falls area, we were the only ones that kind of stuck with it, and then a few others jumped back in,” Koompin said.
Before the 2015 season, Koompin managed his Umatillas similar to Russet Burbanks. Then a crop adviser showed him management guidelines developed by Washington State University potato specialist Mark Pavek for raising Umatillas in the Columbia Basin. According to Pavek’s recommendation, the variety needs 400 pounds of nitrogen per acre, with two-thirds of the fertilizer applied in the early season. Russet Burbank, by comparison, requires just 360 pounds, which is insufficient for maintaining good vine health in Umatillas.
Koompin said he tweaked Pavek’s guidelines based on Idaho’s shorter growing season, but believes his size-profile problems have become a thing of the past.
Pavek said his father, Joseph, made the initial cross for Umatilla in 1982 at University of Idaho’s Aberdeen Research and Extension Center, and it was released in 1998 by the Tri-State Potato Breeding Program. Pavek made his first Umatilla management guidelines in 2008 and updated them from 2010 through 2012, specifically increasing the nitrogen requirements.
However, Idaho farmers have been slow to learn of the changes and implement them in their fields.
Rupert farmer Duane Grant, who has been raising Umatillas four years, learned of the guidelines two seasons ago, while attending a WSU potato school. After struggling with Umatillas in his first two seasons, Grant said he has been “reasonably happy” with them since changing his nitrogen rates.
“I think there’s been a lot of bad experiences with Umatillas,” Grant said. “People try to raise them like a Burbank.”
Pavek said his Umatilla guidelines are available online at the Potato Variety Management Institute website, PVMI.org. In July, PVMI also posted his nitrogen-management guidelines for 15 varieties, including Umatillas. Pavek, however, acknowledges agricultural extension programs must do a better job of using modern media to quickly disseminate information to the industry.
Pavek believes raising Umatillas is “an art,” requiring careful attention to irrigation, fertilizer and planting depth. It’s also sensitive to white mold, black dot and early vine death. Though Pavek acknowledges it’s a “bit dangerous to grow,” he said farmers who produce good Umatilla crops are rewarded with better returns.
“This year, we’re seeing very large yields with Umatillas because the vines stayed alive,” Pavek said.