HERMISON, Ore. — The local agricultural community came together last week to send thousands of pounds of potatoes to Oregon food banks.
In the past, the spuds would have gone to waste, tilled over after they served their purpose as a test plot at the Hermiston Agricultural Research & Extension Center. But four years ago the experiment station decided to start partnering with local producers and the nonprofit Farmers Ending Hunger to put them to good use in food boxes for families in need.
“It’s a great program,” said John Burt, executive director of Farmers Ending Hunger. “It takes a lot of people to make it happen.”
The program starts with test plots at HAREC, paid for by grants from the Oregon Potato Commission and tended by the experiment station. HAREC director Phil Hamm said while some produce grown at the experiment station couldn’t be used for human consumption after being subjected to experiments, the potatoes harvested Wednesday weren’t experimented upon.
Instead, area growers each send 300 tubers to be planted at HAREC. There, plant pathologist Kenneth Frost evaluates them for disease, and contacts growers if he finds any issues.
Hamm said because the acres are a mixture of potato varieties, it doesn’t work to send them all to a french fry plant, for example, but each individual potato is good for eating.
“This is a good use of potatoes that are absolutely OK, just not for a commercial setting,” he said.
On Wednesday, Stahl Farms donated the labor and equipment to harvest the potatoes, which were loaded onto trucks provided by Medelez Trucking. The trucks took them to Walchli Potato to be processed, washed and packaged and sent to a storage facility owned by farmer Steve Walker. Hamm said they didn’t have a final number yet, but it was definitely more than 100,000 pounds of potatoes.
Farmers Ending Hunger, which started in Umatilla County, facilitates donations of fresh food from Oregon farmers to the Oregon Food Bank. Burt said Wednesday’s effort with the test potatoes was a little different than the normal donation, but it was worth the effort. Some of the potatoes will go to CAPECO in Pendleton to be distributed locally, and the rest will be picked up by the Oregon Food Bank to be distributed to their network of food banks throughout the state.
“We will leave as much locally as possible,” Burt said.
Hunger is an issue throughout Oregon. According to the Oregon Food Bank, 14 percent of Oregonians are “food insecure,” meaning they don’t have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of nutritious food. Of those 552,900 Oregonians, 194,070 are children.
The food bank works to lessen hunger by distributing food through 1,200 different local sites around the state and Clark County, Washington. Food is kept in 21 regional food banks, with CAPECO serving as one for northeastern Oregon. Food comes from corporate and individual donations, and Farmers Ending Hunger is one of the top donors. The nonprofit donated 26 million pounds of food crops between 2006 and 2017.