BLACKFOOT- Old Man Winter is reluctant to loosen his grip on eastern Idaho this year, causing anxiety among some of Bingham County’s farmers accustomed to being in the fields by now.
While some fields are greening up with fall wheat, barley, alfalfa, and grass hay, the snow and rain still falls, farms are filled with mud and water, and equipment sits idle while its owners wait for the fields to dry before they can plant potatoes and other crops.
Pingree farmer Garth Van Orden — who farms 5,000 acres from the Fort Hall Reservation to Shelley, growing mostly potatoes and wheat on soils that vary from light to heavy — says that while the well-drained lighter sandy soils are normally the first to get planted, even they can’t overcome the amount of moisture that’s falling this year.
“We’re working in fits and starts,” he said. “We’ve been planting a little between storms whenever it dries out a little, and we’ve got a couple hundred acres planted so far.”
But he says farmers are always at the mercy of the elements and it does no good to worry or complain.
“The weather is what it is,” VanOrden said, “and the sooner you learn to deal with what Mother Nature gives you, the better off you’ll be. You have to learn patience if you’re going to be in his business,” he added.
If there’s such a thing as a normal year in farming, he said normally they would have their seed potatoes in the ground by this time in the lighter soils. “We’ve started as early as late March and as late as the middle of April before,” Garth said, “and we’ve been spoiled by the good spring weather we’ve had the past couple of years.”
However, he added, except for spring wheat, what happens during the growing season is more important than when you get your fields planted, so long as it’s not extremely late, and that’s the time farmers most need cooperation from the weather.
Spring wheat, which he grows along with winter wheat as a rotation crop for four varieties of potatoes, is the exception. If it’s planted too late it will mature late, which means potato growers will be in the unenviable position of harvesting two crops at the same time.
In raising four different varieties of potatoes at once, VanOrden is taking advantage of the developments in potato research that give growers a choice of markets they can target with their crops.
Where once the Russet-Burbank — called “Idaho’s Aristocrat in Burlap” by James W. Davis in his history of Idaho’s potato industry — was the main potato grown commercially in Idaho, research has given growers many varieties to choose from.
“The Russet-Burbank is still our mainstay,” VanOrden said, “and we grow those for the fresh market.” He also grows Norlund red potatoes and Narkotah russets for the fresh market, while the fourth variety, Ranger-Russet, is grown for the processing market.
The Narkotah, developed for potato growers in North Dakota where summers are shorter, are favored by many potato growers because of their shorter growing season and an earlier skin set than other russet varieties, so they hit the fresh market earlier. The Norlunds are grown for the restaurant market as well as for sale in grocery stores.
Operating as Garth VanOrden Farms, the business employs around 10 people full-time, including the owners, and over the planting, growing, and harvesting seasons can have as high as 70 seasonal workers on the payroll.
VanOrden has been farming for 40 years, starting out in 1976 with his brothers and father. He went on his own in 1980, and now farms in partnership with his two sons, Shaun and Dillon, and his long-time farm manager Clay Anderson.
They had a break in the weather Friday and lost no time in getting the potato planters into the ground on Blueberry Hill southeast of Blackfoot and another location on the Fort Hall Reservation where the soil is sandy and light.