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Seed potato plants emerge June 5, east of Sabin, Minn., on the R. Schmidt Potato Co. land. Seed potatoes produced here will be used largely by gardeners for the 2013 crop in places like Florida. (Mikkel Pates, Agweek staff)

Seed potato crop gets good start

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Seed potato crop gets good start
Grand Forks North Dakota 375 2nd Ave. N. 58203

SABIN, Minn. -- They're up.

Seed potatoes at the R. Schmidt Potato Co., at Sabin, Minn., are just emerging to 8 inches tall, thanks to a favorable planting season. Randy Schmidt said that despite a hard, fast 2-inch rain on Memorial Day weekend, things are looking good -- so far.

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The seed business has been in the Schmidt family for more than 100 years. Randy's father, Rodney, and son, Scott, are also in the business. The family is among only about four seed potato growers in Clay County, where there seemed to be "one in every neighborhood" when Schmidt was growing up.

The main reason for the reduced number of growers is increased costs. In a year like this, it's an expensive crop to put in, even more than other high-value crops such as sugar beets, especially when growers cope with challenging weather.

"In the last 10 years, we've been hit with more disasters than anywhere in the country," Schmidt said.

Last year the Schmidts were "way late" getting the product into the ground. Then they were hit with the biggest virus to hit this area of Minnesota -- mosaic virus. "I'd say 90 percent of the lots had a trace to severe virus in them. "We had virus showing up, but we're working to plant clean seed without virus in them," he said.

The Schmidts had to import some seed potatoes from Canada in 2011 and 2012, to acquire seed for their farm, which produces only seed potatoes.

"By the time we got them here we had a little over $32 a hundredweight invested in the product going in the ground," Schmidt said. "We're planting roughly 20 to 25 bags an acre. With the potatoes themselves, it will cost from $1,400 to $1,500 per acre."

On May 16, Schmidt was planting his last field of seed potatoes, which was finished well ahead of normal. Some potato growth is a month ahead of normal.

Not too early

"One of the things with potatoes is that you want to take it a bit slow," Schmidt said. "The reds we don't like to have in the ground too early. The longer they stay in the ground, they do lose some color and actually start to regrow. When it comes to harvesting, we have to have the right conditions" so that they'll store all year long.

This year, the family is raising 20 varieties in 50 lots -- Norland, Dark Red Norland, LaSodas, Pontiacs, Cobblers, Kennebecs, Blue's and Fingerlings. The family also grows corn, soybeans and small grains. The smallest acreage of a variety under production is planted in a couple of rows, 200 feet long. The largest lots are about 50 acres, for a total of about 300 acres.

The Schmidts start the seed potato in tissue culture grown in two greenhouses. "It's very time-consuming when you're in the seed business," Schmidt said. The Schmidts have a year of production inside the greenhouse, producing mini-tubers.

The garden market

The Schmidts' market to the garden trade all over the United States, and is one of about a half dozen in the region that do. "We start out shipping, usually, in early December, starting in Florida and working to the north."

They shoot for a seed potato on the smaller side of the size range -- up to 12 ounces. "When we ship into Florida we have 10-ounce size, tops," he said. "That's what they prefer down there.

"Ninety percent of our stuff goes out in a bag -- 50-pound bags or smaller," Schmidt said.

The potato seed business appears to be stable.

Mike Horken, supervisor of the Potato Program Unit for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said there likely will be about 7,500 acres of certified seed potatoes in the state this year, but applications for the designation aren't due until Friday. About 35 growing operations produce certified seed potatoes.

"There are three main growing regions -- the Red River Valley, where a lot of growers raise reds for the fresh industry," said Horken, who is based in East Grand Forks. "There are a couple of large operations in the central sands area, where they raise russets for the process market."

A lot of seed moves between Minnesota and North Dakota, Horken said.

Needing fewer acres

Horken said there has been a gradual decline in seed potato acreage, perhaps because of better yields. "Growers are doing a lot better job of farming. Their yields are bigger, so we don't have to raise as many acres as we used to."

North Dakota State Seed Commissioner Ken Bertsch in Fargo said seed potato production inspected by his agency has varied from 17,000 to 18,000 acres of potatoes per year for the past three years. He said there are about 30 seed potato growers in the state. Production varies with needs of the process, table stock and chipping industry, and the vast majority of the seed produced in North Dakota, is used in the state, he said.

Potatoes are a small number of the seed acres in North Dakota. Field seed, other than potatoes grown in the state, in the past three or four years has run about 275,000 acres, Bertsch said. That dropped to about 230,000 acres in 2011 because of weather and flooding. He said the department handled 350,000 acres about five years ago, but a healthy number is "inching toward 300,000 acres."

Agweek and the Herald are both owned by Forum Communications Co.

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