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Home arrow News arrow Business arrow It’s time to put up the potatoes

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It’s time to put up the potatoes

Some growers say yields are down a bit, but the weather was conducive to a good wheat crop


Ken Austin grabs a chunk of dirt off the conveyor moving spuds to a truck during the potato harvest at Jason and Rosie Williams’ farm near North Powder.   (Baker City Herald/Kathy Orr)
Ken Austin grabs a chunk of dirt off the conveyor moving spuds to a truck during the potato harvest at Jason and Rosie Williams’ farm near North Powder. (Baker City Herald/Kathy Orr)
Potatoes came on late and yields are down slightly in some places due to a combination of a prolonged winter, wet spring and an early frost this fall, but abundant irrigation this summer also helped produce superior quality spuds, according to Baker County growers.

Also on the plus side, the cool, damp weather that affected potato yields produced an above average wheat crop at the Blatchford farm near Haines.

“It was a good water year, and that’s good for potato quality,” said Dave Blatchford, who founded the family farm along with his brother Jim in the early 1970s.

The Blatchfords grow Russet potatoes on about 700 acres. Workers were busy Monday harvesting potatoes under warm, sunny skies.

“These are all contracted potatoes, so the prices is steady,” Dave Blatchford said, adding that potatoes grown on the family farm will be sold to Simplot and Heinz Frozen Foods.

Potato harvest is also wrapping up in the North Powder area, where Jason and Rosie Williams raise about 530 acres of spuds in addition to hay and grain crops at their farm, called Hay Inc.

The Williamses raise Russet Burbank potatoes for processing into French fries and other products at the Ore-Ida plant in Ontario.

At the Williams farm, Ken Austin said this is his seventh season harvesting potatoes and operating a clod hopper machine that sorts potatoes and removes dirt clods, rocks and vines before the potatoes are loaded into a truck via a conveyor belt.

Austin said yields this year also appear to be “better than average” at the Williams farm, where harvest crews were loading 22 semi-loads a day at 60,000 pounds per truck shipped to the Ore-Ida plant.

Potato production in Baker County has been on the rise, with farmers growing potatoes on 3,800 acres in 2007, compared to 3,700 acres harvested in 2006, according to a report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

With potato yields averaging 490 hundredweight per acre, Baker County ranked fifth in potato yields statewide in 2006 and sixth in 2007 with yields averaging 450 hundredweight. The statistics service has not released yield or harvested acres yet for this harvest season.

Baker’s County’s potato production amounts to just over 10 percent of Oregon’s statewide harvested acreage of 35,000 in 2006 and 36,000 in 2007, according to the statistics service.

Jess Blatchford, Dave’s son, climbed out of a potato truck waiting to be unloaded at the family’s potato sheds near the intersection of Brown Road and Pole Line Lane.

Jess said harvest crews typically get a two- or three-week break between wheat harvest and potato harvest. This year, though, the weather delayed the wheat harvest so much that the gap between the harvests was much shorter than usual.

“This year we had three days’ break between wheat and potato harvest,” Jess said.

The Blatchfords harvested about 1,500 acres of wheat this year, consisting of a combination of a soft white wheat blend of Stephens, Madsen and Tubbs varieties, as well as a dark northern wheat.

Unlike potato yields, the Blatchfords wheat crop yielded around 110 bushels per acre, about 10 bushels per acre more than the farm’s average yield.

“The winter wheat has a better yield than the spring wheat because it gets that extra start,” Jess Blatchford said.

Unlike the steady price for contracted potatoes, Dave Blatchford said wheat prices have fallen dramatically from record highs of $10 to $15 a bushel late in 2007, to around $6 a bushel now.

When the wheat harvest started earlier this year in the lower-elevation Columbia Basin, wheat prices were in the $8 to $9 per bushel range, and farmers were waiting to see whether rains would revive the Australian wheat crop or if drought conditions would persist and drive prices higher in a repeat of the 2007 wheat market.

Dave Blatchford said he sold some of his wheat crop on the futures market in the $8 to $9 price range, but it looks like he might be stuck selling some of the crop in the $5 per bushel range.

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