Plumes of dust rise from the dry earth of a potato field on Homedale Road.
The once leafy green tops have shriveled and dried up and they crunch underfoot, killed by a frost several weeks prior. Beneath the parched earth, Norcoda russets wait for Ross Fleming to harvest them.
“You have to let them freeze so the skins will set,” Fleming said Tuesday. “These are going right to the packing plant.”
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freshly washed potatoes by pulling out odd, damaged
or misshapen ones at Tulelake Distributors in
Fleming had just begun to dig his potatoes, and had finished 10 acres of the 200 he planted.
This is similar to years past, he said, but one change is how straight and even his rows are. His satellite-equipped tractor eliminated a guess row and ensured him even planting.
This is a good year to be a potato farmer. In fact it’s a good year to be nay kind of a farmer in the Basin.
Prices for potatoes have risen because fewer farmers planted them this year, choosing instead to plant other cash crops.
“Ethanol is really what changed the market on potatoes,” Fleming said. “This should be a profitable year.”
Potato farmers in the Klamath Basin are feeling the same pinch as those who plant other cash crops. Inputs have risen, and fuel and fertilizer costs have increased dramatically.
Fleming points to his tractor.
“That tractor used to burn $100 a day, now it’s burning $500.”
As the acreage of potatoes planted in the Klamath Basin plummets, farmers experience less competition on the open market.
It isn’t every year that potato farmers come out ahead. Depending on the number of potatoes harvested, the going price is sometimes less than what it costs to plant them, farmers say.
“Over the last four years we’ve seen at least break-even prices to the grower,” said Dan Chin of Wong’s Potatoes. “That’s kind of unheard of.”
Chin believes United Potato Growers of the Klamath Basin, an arm of the national organization, has helped to ensure potato growers good returns on their crops.
“Farmers, sometimes, we’re too good at what we do,” Chin said. “Potatoes are a really, really perishable commodity. If you over-produce it, you still have to sell … You can’t keep it, you actually have to sell it within a year’s time.”
While some potatoes go straight from the field to processing plants to store shelves, much of the fall harvest gets put in storage.
Figures released by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, show that in 2007, 18 million hundredweight of potatoes were stored in Oregon as of Dec. 1. A hundredweight equals 100 pounds.
By June 1, that number dropped to 4.2 million.
Chin said so far the harvest has been excellent, although the weather has been warm and that’s not good for storing potatoes.
“We’re seeing good quality potatoes with average to above average yields,” Chin said.
In Tulelake, Tulelake Distributors workers were busy sorting washed potatoes fresh from the field. Huge piles of russet potatoes moved along conveyor belts, going from a mud black to golden brown in a few washes.
From there, workers pull the blemished, misshapen and odd potatoes out and men sort them into large and small groups. A machine weighs them and fills bags and boxes with almost uniform potato weights.
Co-owner Debra Matthews explains that at the fresh-pack facility, potatoes are prepared for delivery to chain stores mostly in the Pacific Northwest.
“With the potato shortage this year, we shipped all over the U.S. and it’s been a few years since we’ve done that,” Matthews said. “There’s not many industries making money right now — agriculture is.”
Waiting to be shipped
Tulelake Distributors has storage facilities as well, where some potatoes will wait up to nine months before being shipped to retailers.
But for Matthews’ business, there is growth in fresh refrigerated products. Consumers are purchasing potatoes pre-mashed or scalloped in different varieties.
“Everybody’s looking at a way to look at the value added sector,” Williams said.