Spud harvest

Trucks were lined up at a local storage on one of the warmer days last week as potato growers worked at top speed to finish their harvest before the weekend cold snap hit. Unloading trucks into storage are Rick Converse and Gerardo Nunez from Wada Farms.

BLACKFOOT – There was sadness and dismay in eastern Idaho’s potato community this weekend as the 2019 harvest wound down and growers began tallying up their losses from October’s disastrous freeze while pondering what to do with the tons of unusable tubers it left behind.

This season’s harvest will be marked by tons of decaying potatoes for which there is no home.

Some growers were luckier than others, particularly those with smaller acreages. They got their potatoes out of the ground and into storage before the freezing cold spell hit.

Pingree grower Garth Van Orden, sounding weary from days and nights of working to beat the incoming cold front forecast for this weekend, said the frost was spotty, affecting some sections of fields while passing over others, but caused great damage to those it hit. He estimated that he lost 40,000 sacks from a single farm — about 10 percent of the crop at that location.

The potato processors helped the growers as much as they could by taking the least damaged tubers , VanOrden said, but they aren’t prepared to handle the sheer volume that growers needed to dispose of at one time.

It was a hardship all around, he said, because the growers had to wash off the mud that resulted when the tubers thawed and began to weep after they came out of the ground, then sort them, discarding those with the worst damage before sending them to the processor, and the processors had to sort and wash them again to determine what percentage they could use and still maintain their standards.

“We tried doing it for a while and finally gave up,” Van Orden said. “It was just too expensive and time consuming for what we could get out of it.”

Where frost damage was extensive, he said, some growers left the damaged tubers in the fields and disked them into the soil, while others — himself included — dug and spread them out on the ground where they’ll refreeze and hopefully dry up without lasting environmental concerns before winter is over.

In past years, growers have disposed of some of their unusable potatoes by selling them for livestock feed, but VanOrden said that’s not possible with this crop because the feeders aren’t prepared. “They have to know in advance that they’re coming and work them into their feeding schedule,” he said. “This was an emergency.”

Travis Blacker, local industry relations director for the Idaho Potato Commission in eastern Idaho, estimated that 30 percent of the potato crop statewide was lost to frost damage.

The potato harvest had to shut down last week when the unseasonably cold temperatures descended on Idaho, causing fears that the tubers remaining in the ground might be a total loss. Still, the few growers available for comment said it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but worse than they hoped. The entire crop wasn’t destroyed but the frost went deep enough into the ground to hurt some more than others.

VanOrden said growers at the higher elevations where it snowed were luckier than those in the valley — the snow provided insulation for their crops.

A trip around local storages on Friday showed trucks lined up and waiting to unload into storage tubers that seemed to have escaped the frost.

It’s been a hard year for the potato growers, plagued as they were from the start of the planting season with rain and cold that delayed emergence of the plants, followed in some areas by frost that slowed growth. There was optimism when the weather improved for a couple of months and the plants flourished, but it evaporated with the beginning of harvest when searing temperatures that rose into the high 90s forced them into the fields as early as 2 and 3 a.m., only to be followed by the sudden freezing temperature that did the same.

Some of the growers look back to the 1985 harvest when an early frost descended and they dug and stored their potatoes thinking they were only chilled. “We put ours in storage that fall and hauled them out in the spring in manure spreaders,” said Gene Evans, who added that he was lucky enough to have his entire crop harvested before the early October freeze.

He opined that losses will be huge for some, since the cost of growing potatoes is $1,800 to $2,000 per acre.

VanOrden had praise for his workers, saying it was only their willingness to work long hours in the cold and wind that enabled his harvest to end by Friday. “I put them through hell last week, working night and day in the wind and the cold, but they stuck by us. We have good help.”