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Potato blossoms

Potato plants bloom Friday in a field near Kimberly.

REXBURG — Despite a late start to planting eastern Idaho’s 2017 potato crop, Idaho farmers said that subsequent weather conditions have been good with plants responding well.

A cold and rainy spring was responsible for planting delays ranging between two and three weeks here in eastern Idaho.

Growers are feeling cautiously optimistic about the current state of their crop at mid-season despite being behind schedule. They believe the crop can make up for the late start if weather patterns cooperate through the remainder of the growing season and into the fall harvest.

“I’d say our potato crop right now on our farm is probably between two and three weeks behind and it looks good but it’s probably about that far back,” said Jared Wattenbarger, of Shelley, on July 6.

Wattenbarger, his two brothers, Ryan and Bart, and their father, Deverle, farm just over 3,000 acres, with 1,250 acres planted in Russet Burbank potatoes for the fresh market. All of their potatoes go to GPOD of Idaho.

Another fresh market potato farmer, Merrill Hanny, of Shelley, said that his initial planting was at least two weeks behind schedule. Hanny said that this spring was one of the coolest he can recall in the 43 years he’s been growing potatoes in northern Bingham County. Hanny grows 500 acres of Russet Burbanks and Russet Norkotahs for Eagle Eye Produce. He also grows 1,200 acres of wheat and 400 acres of alfalfa.

Another reason for the optimistic outlook by Wattenbarger and Hanny is the projected drop in Idaho’s total potato acreage planted in 2017 by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. On June 30, the NASS report stated that Idaho’s total acreage was 310,000, down from 325,000 acres from 2016.

For the past three years, the return on investment for fresh market growers has failed to cover their costs of production. When you add low global commodity prices, the economic outcome for Idaho growers has been dismal.

The Wattenbargers cut back their potato acreage by 40 percent this year, from 2,000 in 2016 to 1,250 this year.

“It’s a real good thing,” Wattenbarger said of the NASS report. “We have to rely solely on the fresh (market) and if it’s not doing well and wheat’s not doing well, we’re losing money across the board, and it’s been this way for the past three years for this area on up to Rexburg.”

Hanny said that the reduction in acres may bring some stability to the market and that would be a benefit to both growers and consumers.

“I really believe that this reduction in acres, firming up potato prices benefits not =only growers but consumers as well,” he said. “It brings constant supply, high-quality potatoes priced competitively. So that consumers get real value for their dollar spent and it keeps people in business so we’re right in that sweet zone of balancing production with demand and it’s good for everybody.”

Both growers expressed some concerns about the recent heat index in the high 90s this past week and the potential effect on developing tubers. However, with the plants achieving row closure in the fields, the closed canopies keep the soil moist and cool, protecting the tubers from the heat while they bulk up.

“It really controls the soil temperature,” Hanny said of row closure. “It’s like sitting in the shade versus out in the sun. It’s a big difference.”

Fortunately, due to the excellent snowpack this past winter, there is an abundance of water available for the growers this year.

“The canal companies have been real kind,” Wattenbarger said. “They’ve been letting us have all the water we need.”

Hanny said that while the water cools the ground and keeps the plants hydrated, it brings its own set of disease problems to the potato field.

Last week, he was making arrangements an aerial application of fungicides for the prevention of white mold, early blight and late blight.

Jeff Miller, president and CEO of Miller Research, said there have been no reports of early blight —it’s too early in the season. But he expects to see reports of early blight towards the end of July.

“The big concern I think most growers have now is the heat as the tubers try to bulk in this hot weather,” Miller said. “Is this going to cause us to have issues with hollow heart or brown center?”

He said that achieving row closure will definitely benefit the developing tubers but when temperatures reach the high 90s that’s hard on the potatoes.

“Yesterday it was 94 degrees when I was out spraying,” Miller said. “When I measured the soil temperature under the canopy, six inches down, it was about 75 degrees. The shading does do a good job of insulating them.”

There have been no reports of late blight in Idaho this year, but Washington State University plant pathologist Dennis Johnson reported finding late blight in the Pasco, Wash., area last week.

Growers will be vigilantly monitoring their crops for any indications of disease or pest pressures until harvest season comes at the end of September.

“We have to rely solely on the fresh (market) and if it’s not doing well and wheat’s not doing well, we’re losing money across the board, and it’s been this way for the past three years for this area on up to Rexburg.” Jared Wattenbarger, Russet Burbank potato grower from Shelley

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