BLACKFOOT – The unusual and unpredictable weather that has plagued Idaho’s farmers the past few years progressed this year from crops being planted up to three weeks late, slowing germination and emergence of the plants, to harvest being late and taking place at unusual hours.

At least in Bingham County.

As harvesting of the 2019 fall grain crop is winding down, the work of getting the potato crop out of the ground began in some places a couple of weeks ago but is progressing slowly due to excessive heat.

It has growers for the most part digging potatoes in the wee hours of the morning and quitting the fields before noon.

According to Clay Anderson, co-manager of Garth VanOrden Farms with Garth and his son Sean, potatoes cool off slowly if they’re still in the ground when the temperature is high, but if they’re out of ground cover, they don’t have the chance. They quickly break down and begin to rot.

“You have to be extremely careful about the temperature if you’re growing for the fresh market and storage,” said Garth, who began harvesting his 2,000 acres of potatoes this week.

“Because of the heat, we’ve started digging our potatoes as early as 3 a.m.” he said, “and sometimes we get to go until noon, but most times we have to stop earlier.”

VanOrden Farms grows both the Narkotah and Russet Burbank variety of potatoes, and Garth said while weather problems don’t seem to have affected his crop’s quality this year, yield is down anywhere from eight to 10 percent.

The temperature was hovering around 45 degrees Saturday morning when I ventured out to find some harvest photos, but began climbing as the sun popped over the rim of the Blackfoot Mountain Range and the thermometer began a steady climb toward 65 degrees, the point at which the machines in the fields would stop operating for the day.

The first field I came to was a Martin Brothers lease. They were about to resume harvesting a field of chipping potatoes to fulfill a green contract for Frito Lay. There I met Colby Johnson, man of all work for the Martins, who said they had 2,700 acres total in the county to be harvested. They hadn’t yet started digging for the day, but the work crews were arriving and preparing the equipment, including the generator that would run the piler, which belched a cloud of black smoke as it fired up.

Johnson said the purpose of running the potatoes through the piler on their way to the truck is to remove dirt, rocks, and weeds before they end up at their final destination. It’s the same process used before putting tubers into storage.

Two or three miles farther down the road, VanOrden workers were harvesting a 200-acre field of Narkotahs for the fresh market. The vines had been killed a couple of weeks earlier to allow the skins to set before digging began, and it was evident that the crew was racing against the thermometer.

A cloud of dust filled the air as a pair of tractors pulled two diggers over the field, followed by another tractor pulling a combine that picked up the freshly dug potatoes and transferred them to the truck driving alongside. Gathering two rows of potatoes at a time, the truck bed was soon filled and on its way to base where the potatoes would be run through a piler and into a semi trailer.

I caught up with Clay by phone around 10:30 a.m., and he said they’d already quit for the day. “We didn’t want to take a chance on it getting to 65 degrees,” he said.