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Washington potato farmers see above-average yields

Wildfire smoke may be a factor in crop size, says Dale Lathim, executive director of Potato Growers of Washington.
Matthew Weaver

Capital Press

Published on September 11, 2018 9:07AM

Workers remove rocks and debris from Clearwater Russet potatoes Sept. 6 during harvest near Quincy, Wash.

Matthew Weaver/Capital Press

Workers remove rocks and debris from Clearwater Russet potatoes Sept. 6 during harvest near Quincy, Wash.

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Quincy, Wash., potato farmer Adam Weber on a potato digger.

Matthew Weaver/Capital Press

Quincy, Wash., potato farmer Adam Weber on a potato digger.

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Quincy, Wash., potato farmer Adam Weber checks spuds while brother Josh Lybbert and cousin Deven Johnson look on.

Matthew Weaver/Capital Press

Quincy, Wash., potato farmer Adam Weber checks spuds while brother Josh Lybbert and cousin Deven Johnson look on.

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QUINCY, Wash. — Adam Weber and his family last week started harvesting potatoes from the edges of their fields.

Those potatoes will go directly to one of the region’s processing plants to make dehydrated products.

“It’s just a good way to get harvest rolling,” Weber said. “It keeps the lesser-quality spuds from getting into storages. We want to put quality spuds into storage.”

Weber farms 3,500 to 4,000 acres near Quincy, Wash., with his father, uncle, brother and cousin.

At the height of harvest, Weber Farms will have 35 trucks and six diggers running in six locations from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., Weber said.

Weber started storing potatoes this week. The storage facility holds 48,000 tons of potatoes. In October or November, processors will begin pulling potatoes from storage to make french fries. That will last until next May or June, Weber said.

Weber estimates his family’s yield will be about 4 percent above the state’s average yield of 30 tons per acre, with some fields yielding as much as 40 tons per acre.

“I think it’s weather-related,” he said of the yields, crediting a mild spring but adding that smoke from wildfires may have been another factor. “Some of our slowdown actually came when the smoke started coming in.”

Smoke is believed to block the sun and interrupt photosynthesis, hindering plant development.

Depending on the area, smoke lessened after 10 days to two weeks, said Dale Lathim, executive director of Potato Growers of Washington. Some pockets of smoke remain.

Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, said more research may be needed on the effect of smoke on plant development.

“In the last three years, we’ve experienced a lot of smoke — I don’t know if that’s the new norm,” he said.

If it’s determined that particular varieties are more susceptible to smoke, the industry could plant those that perform better, Voigt said.

“I think everybody is genuinely curious, but I don’t know if we’re at the point to make it a higher priority considering all the other things we’re dealing with,” he said.

Some seed quality issues also arose in the area, but the Webers didn’t experience as much as some of their neighbors, Weber said.

Some farmers will see significant impacts, but the total crop won’t be affected, Lathim said. He predicted some fields could see a 25 percent reduction in yield, and a wide variety of sizes. Some tubers grew larger without competition around them, Lathim said.

“Was it a situation where the seed was physiologically aged or stressed last year because of weather conditions, maybe smoke or whatever, in the seed-growing area?” he said. “We hope it was an isolated situation that’s not going to re-occur, but if it’s something we can put our finger on ... then we would address that.”

Lathim said the overall potato crop is about half a ton above the average yield.

“The quality is exceptional,” Lathim said.

Weber’s farm grows potatoes primarily under contract. He said profitability depends on how well the potatoes fare in storage.

Among the challenges farmers face is finding qualified truck drivers, he said.

Another challenge is meeting the Environmental Protection Agency’s stricter regulations for spray procedures, Weber said. Practices are already safer for the environment, he noted.

“I think the farming industry is getting safer and not going backwards, but it seems like regulators are always thinking the opposite,” he said. “You have to have a focus on safety and the environment, because you want to farm on that piece of ground for the rest of your life.”





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