Potato harvest begins

By Jayson Jacoby, The Baker City Herald

By Jayson Jacoby

jjacoby@bakercityherald.com

Baker Valley's potato harvest is under way, and the outlook is good.

Although growers have their eyes peeled for the trucks that haul their spuds to be sliced into french fries and other foods.

For some farmers, a shortage of semi-trucks further complicates the tricky business of coordinating the digging of potatoes with transporting them to processing plants in Ontario and elsewhere, said Cory Parsons of the Oregon State University Extension Service's Baker County office.

"There's just not enough semis to go around," Parsons said Tuesday.

Most growers, though, have cellars or other facilities where they can temporarily store potatoes until the processing plants need them, and there are trucks available.

Jan Kerns, who with her husband, Tim, grows potatoes in Baker Valley, said the scarcity of trucks "gets a little worse each year."

"It takes some juggling with schedules," Jan Kerns said.

Nor is the competition limited to potato growers.

The fleet of trucks also carries onions and sugar beets this time of the year.

Jeanette Thompson said the lack of trucks isn't a problem for her family's operation near Haines.

She and her husband, Brent, own trucks they use to haul potatoes to their storage cellars, where the spuds wait until their contract buyer, Simplot, picks them up.

Jeanette Thompson said they planned to start harvesting either today or Thursday.

Scheduling issues aside, the potato prospects for Baker County are mainly positive, both Kerns and Parsons said.

Except for a July 14 hailstorm that damaged several potato fields in Baker and North Powder valleys, the growing season was "about as ideal as you can get," Kerns said.

The lack of prolonged heat waves and generally cool nights are conducive to better-than-average yields, Kerns said.

The couple's Rainbow Ranch started digging potatoes on Friday.

Other growers are getting started with the harvest this week, Parsons said.

"From what I've heard, potatoes look good," he said.

Sunday's light rain - the first measurable rainfall in the valley since the July 14 storm - didn't cause any major problems for harvesting, Kerns said.

Heavy rain can mess up the harvest in a couple of ways, such as clogging equipment, getting trucks stuck and fouling the potatoes themselves with mud.

Although the full extent of the hail damage won't be known until after the harvest, which will continue for at least a few weeks, Kerns said her family's fields in North Powder Valley, where the hail was heaviest, definitely will have reduced yields.

Potatoes are among the top cash crops in Baker County.

In 2011 the 4,000 acres of potato fields produced a gross value of $12.2 million, according to the Oregon Agriculture Information Network.

Baker County ranked fourth among Oregon counties in potato production, behind Morrow ($60.9 million in gross sales), Umatilla ($58.5 million) and Klamath ($18.8 million).

Beef cattle is the biggest part of Baker County's agriculture sector, accounting for $50 million in sales out of $80.6 million in 2011.

Potatoes are the most valuable row crop at $12.2 million, followed by wheat at $8.3 million in gross sales, and alfalfa hay at $5.7 million.

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The Baker City Herald
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