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Jonathan Knutson, Forum News Service, Published October 17 2013

A short season: Area seed potato growers have limited harvest window

KARLSTAD, Minn. – A Dagen Heritage Farms’ truck loaded with 17 tons of newly harvested seed potatoes rumbles down a rural Minnesota highway on a drizzly late-September morning.

Behind the wheel is Justin Dagen, a fifth-generation producer whose family has farmed in Springbrook Township in northwest Minnesota’s Kittson County for 130 years. As he drives, he points to nearby farmsteads where his forefathers lived.

Dagen raises many crops. But potatoes are his favorite – and potato harvest his busiest, most stressful time of year.

“There’s nothing like potato harvest. It’s special. It’s demanding. The opportunity to harvest them (typically the last three weeks in September) is just so limited,” he says.

Harvesting seed potatoes too soon reduces quantity. Harvesting them too late exposes them to greater risk of frost damage.

Dagen also wants to finish his spuds before he begins harvesting his sugar beets in early October.

Dagen chuckles when asked to compare harvesting potatoes with harvesting sugar beets. The latter, a popular crop in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota, often involve a grueling harvest.

Even so, “sugar beets are a walk in the park compared to potatoes,” he says.

Weather hurts, helps

Dagen’s potato harvest is seldom easy. He grows all types of seed potatoes, including reds, whites and russets, and has a half-dozen varieties this year.

So many different varieties complicate both harvest and storage.

“It would be so much simpler if I had just one or two varieties,” he says.

His 2013 spud harvest also was difficult because of dry fields and unseasonably warm weather.

Seed potatoes shouldn’t be harvested when soil temperatures are above 60 degrees; doing so can lead to major storage problems. This September, Dagen had to shut down repeatedly because the mercury rose too high.

Fortunately for Dagen and other potato growers, however, September was free of frost. That gave potatoes more time to develop.

Dry fields also are a bane for potato harvest. Hard clumps of dirt that cling to spuds can bruise them; the clumps also can impede ventilation during storage.

Because August and September were so dry, Dagen was able to keep harvesting, despite the drizzle, on the day Agweek visited. Even with the new moisture, the potato harvester kicked up clouds of dust.

Most of Dagen’s seed potatoes harvested this fall won’t be planted until next spring, so proper storage is crucial.

Potatoes harvested on the day Agweek visited are trucked to a warehouse in Stephen, Minn.

There, a conveyor belt gently carries them from truck to storage pile passing a squad of Dagen employees on the way. As the potatoes pass, the employees remove dirt clumps and an occasional vine.

Walls of the warehouse office are covered with Bible verses and photos of family members. Judging by the wall decorations, faith, farming and deer hunting are all important to the extended Dagen family.

‘Go, go go’

Dagen Heritage Farms typically has 10 people working during potato harvest: four in the warehouse, four driving trucks and two with the potato harvester.

Dagen typically drives a truck, putting him in better position to coordinate the overall operation.

One of the other truck drivers is Jack Bothum, 73, a Karlstad resident and retired telephone company worker.

“It’s just for a couple of weeks, but I enjoy it. It’s fall, the smell of the dirt, the excitement. It’s a way of life,” he says of potato harvest.

Bothum, who had just driven a potato-laden truck from the field, watches as Dagen works in the Stephen warehouse.

“He gets into it. Go, go, go,” Bothum says of Dagen. “That’s the way potato harvest is.”

With luck, Dagen says, he and his crews can harvest about 10 percent of his potatoes daily.

Typically, when the weather allows, harvest starts at 7 a.m. and continues until dark.

Customers nationwide

The Red River Valley of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota 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.

Dagen supplies 15 customers with seed potatoes. Most are in the Red River Valley, but he has customers nationwide, too.

“I want to have a tight, close relationship. My job is to give them the highest-quality seed possible,” he says.

Prices and quality are both important to farmers who grow seed potatoes, he says.

“My banker is most concerned with the prices. Customers are most concerned with the quality,” he says.

Dagen sells his potatoes in a number of ways, including three-and two-year contracts and on the open market.

Dagen is one of two remaining potato growers in Kittson County. Poor potato prices in 1996 hurt growers nationwide, causing some to get out of spuds. Dagen says he was able to sell some of his potatoes, thanks to relationships he had built up, and continue growing them.

Next generation

Dagen, 53, took over the farm at age 17, after his dad died of a massive heart attack.

Through the years, Justin Dagen has been active in area and national potato circles. He’s served, among other things, as 2011 president of the National Potato Council.

The Washington, D.C.-based organization provides a unified voice for potatoes nationwide on legislative, regulatory, environmental and trade issues, and promotes increased profitability for growers and greater consumption of potatoes.

Dagen says he wants to do his part to help the potato industry remain healthy for the next generation of growers.

He has a personal stake in that.

Son Brooks, 24, is an engineer for an ag company in Jamestown, N.D. Son Sander, 19, is a North Dakota State University student.

Both sons are involved with farm partnerships with their father. One, or both, eventually could become full-time farmers, Justin Dagen says.

“That’s a possibility. We don’t have a plan down in concrete. But it’s been my goal to give them an opportunity to become farmers,” he says.

If they go into farming, they would be sixth-generation farmers.

Today, however, Dagen’s focus is harvesting potatoes. The weather is cooperating, and Dagen isn’t wasting a minute of it. At noon, he grabs a sandwich and heads back to the truck.

“There’s just nothing like potato harvest. You’ve got to make the most of it,” he says.

Harvest update

Here’s what Dagen had to say about his harvest when Agweek talked with him again in October.

Harvesting should be finished, or nearly so, by the third week of October.

Yields were reasonably good, despite the dry summer. Light, occasional showers provided just enough moisture.

Quality is good, too. Late September rains, which fell after Agweek visited, softened the soil and made digging earlier. Another rain, in early October, shut down harvest only temporarily.

On balance, the 2013 potato crop was a good one. “We feel fortunate.”

Minn. spuds tested in Hawaii

Thousands of potatoes harvested this fall by Dagen, soon will be growing under the Hawaiian sun.

Through the state’s certified seed potato testing program, Minnesota growers remove 400 spuds per 45 acres (or 800 per 90 acres) and send the harvested potatoes to the island of Oahu, where the climate is conducive to winter growth.

The sample spuds from Minnesota will be planted on nine or 10 acres in the first week of December, says Michael Horken, program potato specialist with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

In January, specialists from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture will go to Oahu to examine the grow-out. The staffers will evaluate each sample for viruses, vigor and whether different seed varieties are mixed together, Horken says.

A Minnesota grower whose test sample fails in Hawaii because of a virus can still sell his seed potatoes to commercial growers, but can’t sell them for recertification to other seed growers, Horken says.

Inspectors with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture walk fields of certified seed potatoes during the Minnesota growing season, but sometimes insects pass diseases during the summer that inspectors can’t detect, he says.

Through the winter testing, seed virus is kept to an economically acceptable level in the industry, he says.

All seed-producing states have a winter grow-out test program, and Minnesota’s program is representative of what other states do, Horken says.

North Dakota also produces seed potatoes. Its winter grow-out test is in Homestead, Fla., near Miami, according to the North Dakota State Seed Department.

Jonathan Knutson writes for Agweek