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Potatoes look good in ND, Minn. as crops avoid drought, deluges

NDSU professor Harlene Hatterman-Valenti talks about her current potato-related research during the annual Irrigated Potato Day tour held at the Forest River Hutterite colony near Inkster, N.D. on Thursday, August 24, 2017. Nick Nelson/Agweek1 / 4
Potato test plots were the main attraction at the annual Irrigated Potato Day tour held at the Forest River Hutterite Colony near Inkster, N.D. on Thursday, August 24, 2017. Nick Nelson/Agweek2 / 4
Test plot potato plants shine in the sunlight near Inkster, N.D. during the annual Irrigated Potato Day tour on Thursday, August 24, 2017. Nick Nelson/ Forum News Service3 / 4
Sunlit potato flowers glow in test plots at the Forest River Hutterite colony near Inkster, N.D. on Thursday, August 24, 2017. Nick Nelson/ Forum News Service4 / 4

INKSTER, N.D. — Red River Valley potato growers generally have avoided drought and deluge this growing season. That bodes well for the soon-to-begin 2017 harvest.

"The crop is looking really good in Minnesota, and it looks very good in North Dakota. We're optimistic," said Chuck Gunnerson, president of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association.

He was among the nearly 200 people who attended the annual Potato Field Day tour on Thursday, Aug. 24. The event was sponsored by the East Grand Forks, Minn.,-based Northern Plains Potato Growers Association and included field tours and presentations by area potato experts in Larimore, Inkster and Hoople, N.D. Lunch, research presentations and a tour of irrigated trials were held at the Forest River Colony near Inkster.

The irrigated potato research is conducted on Hutterite-owned land rented by the potato growers association. The Hutterite colony, which has a Fordville, N.D., postal address, has been irrigating since 1973.

North Dakota and Minnesota are among the country's top potato producers. The Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota — where most of the two states' potato production occurs — is the nation's leading producer of red potatoes and the only region that produces in volume for the chip, fresh, seed and process markets.

Prime potato-growing areas in northeast North Dakota were hammered with rain during the 2016 growing season, in some cases twice as much as normal. That created anxiety during the 2016 Potato Field Day tour and ultimately hurt yields in many potato fields.

This year, in contrast, much of northeast North Dakota received less rain than normal, but the shortfall generally wasn't as severe as in drought-stricken parts of North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. What's more, good subsoil moisture in northeast North Dakota — a result of the 2016 deluge — has helped to offset below-normal precipitation this growing season in potato fields overall.

"There are always pockets that are too dry or two wet. And we have pockets this year that are too dry. But overall, the crop has done well," thanks to both timely rains and plentiful subsoil moisture, said Andrew Robinson, Fargo, N.D.,-based extension potato specialist with both North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota.

As of Aug. 20, the last day for which statistics from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are available, 60 percent of North Dakota's potato crop was rated good or excellent, with 23 fair and 17 percent poor or very poor. Ninety-four percent of Minnesota's potato crop was rated good or excellent, with 5 percent fair and 1 percent fair. Irrigated potatoes are much more common in Minnesota than North Dakota, so Minnesota spuds should fare better overall in years with less-than-ideal precipitation.

Lonnie Spokely, a Nielsville, Minn., potato grower, said some of his fields haven't received as much rain as he wanted, but he's hopeful of good yields.

Potato prices are relatively attractive, at least for the time being, so good yields would make this a successful year financially for growers in general, Gunnerson said.

Potatoes are susceptible to dicamba, an herbicide that has received considerable attention this summer. But Robinson said he isn't aware of significant or widespread dicamba to the region's potato crop this growing season.

Harlene Hatterman-Valenti, an NDSU professor who works with high-value crop production, talked during the tour about her research into the effects of dicamba and glyphosate, another herbicide, on potatoes. The work found, among other things, that weather considerations can affect the level of harm done to potatoes by dicamba.

Late blight, a dangerous crop disease that triggered the Irish potato famines of the 1940s, has been found again this year in both North Dakota and Minnesota potato fields, Robinson said.

Though area growers are familiar with the disease, "We need to stay vigilant," he said.

The area's potato harvest is expected to begin about Sept. 10, and favorable weather — especially cool nights and another timely rain — would help potatoes bulk up, Robinson said.

More precipitation also would help make dry fields easier to dig, he said.

"It's been a good growing season, but these last few weeks will be so important," he said.