Successive nights of sub-freezing temperatures have caused an estimated $45 million in damage to the Red River Valley red and yellow potato crops.
Wet conditions during the past month delayed the potato harvest, leaving about half of the red and yellow crops, which are grown for the fresh market, vulnerable to frost damage, said Ted Kreis, Northern Plains Potato Growers Association spokesman.
After three straight nights of low temperatures that hovered at either side of 20 degrees and with no snow on top of the crop to insulate it, it’s unlikely that the potatoes will be worth harvesting, Kreis said.
“That would be about 9,000 (acres) lost or abandoned. That’s huge,” he said.
“I know there’s a lot of financial stress going on right now,” Kreis said. “Our hearts really go out to those who are struggling with this. Potatoes are an expensive crop to raise.”
The Red River Valley is the largest producer of red potatoes in the United States, and North Dakota and Minnesota combined, is the third largest potato growing region in the country. Potato farmers in the Northern Plains raise about 62% of potatoes for fry processing, 10% for seed, 12% for chipping and 16% for the fresh market, according to the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association.
Statewide, 70% of the potatoes in North Dakota and 92% of the potatoes in Minnesota had been harvested as of Sunday, Oct. 27, the National Agricultural Statistics Service said. Those numbers represent averages, which means that farmers in some areas have been able to get the majority of their crops out of the field and others, little or none.
For example, farmers, north and west of Grand Forks where it is drier, were able to harvest as much as 80% of their crop before the freeze, while farmers nearer the Red River, have harvested as little as 5%, Kreis said.
Farmers on either side of the Red River are among those battling the toughest field conditions, and some say this fall is the wettest they’ve ever seen.
“We farm about 400 acres in a 5-mile radius of East Grand Forks. We’ve only got 5% to 7% of our potatoes out of the field,” said Frankie Vargas, production manager at A & L Potato Co. in East Grand Forks. “We’ve got 12 to 14 inches of rain since September.
“The ground is just saturated. You go down a potato field and start driving down the rows and look back and there is water standing in the rows,” Vargas said.
Because A & L can’t get into the fields to harvest, the frost actually is a secondary issue for the company, he said.
“The frost doesn’t even matter at this point to me. I can’t even get into a field to dig. It’s the water. It’s the muddy conditions," Vargas said.
Further west, near Larimore, N.D., Carl Hoverson, still has about 20% of the chipping and potato stock potatoes he grows in the field.
“We’ve got 1,100 acres we may not get out,” said Hoverson, noting the last time he left potatoes in the field was in 1983.
“It’s been tough. We don’t get many days to harvest and it rains and snows and freezes .... If they even have a little frost damage, they’ll get frost rot. They won’t store and quality goes down," he said.
The ripple effect will be felt across the region, Hoverson said. Not only potatoes, but sugar beets, soybeans, wheat, corn, canola, edible beans and sunflowers have been damaged as a result of the delayed harvest.
“Every crop is at peril. It’s really bad for the region,” Hoverson said.