Josue Arenas of Hermiston sorts out rocks, grass and rotten potatoes as the tubers pass by on a conveyor belt Wednesday outside of Hermiston.
Hermiston potato farmer Greg Juul points out the shallow eye of the Russet-Norkotah variety of potato he is currently harvesting outside of Hermiston.
Watching potatoes tumble down the conveyor belt into storage at Royale Columbia Farms is enough to make Greg Juul a little dizzy.
Inside the two storage units, spuds are piled 16 feet high over 15,000 square feet each. That’s about 8,000 tons of fresh market Russet Norkotahs that will eventually find their way onto supermarket shelves.
Juul, who owns G2 Farming LLC in Hermiston with partner Troy Betz, is anticipating a slightly above-average potato harvest as warmer, drier weather helped to jump-start growth in early spring.
While a snap of triple-digit temperatures suffocated some plants’ development in late July, Juul said yields look good — especially among their early season varieties, which averaged close to 40 tons per acre. Late season potatoes could be as high as 32 tons per acre, despite the brutal heat across the Columbia Basin.
“We just have a very controlled growing environment, which makes us so productive,” Juul said.
Statewide, Oregon harvests nearly 40,000 acres of potatoes per year. Umatilla and Morrow counties account for more than half that total, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
G2 Farming grows about 1,100 acres of potatoes divided among four farms around Hermiston. RA Farming, also operated by Juul and Betz, adds another 800 acres on land leased from Madison Ranches in nearby Echo.
Together, they produce about 70 percent of spuds for Bud-Rich Potato, which markets as a member of Basin Gold, a co-op based in Pasco.
Harvest season begins in late June, digging up varieties that will ultimately be sold for making potato
chips locally at Shearer’s Foods, Inc. The next wave begins about July 15, with varieties sold for processing into french fries at ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston.
But the bread and butter at Bud-Rich is still fresh market potatoes, which come along last and are stored at the farms to sell throughout the year.
Excessive hot weather runs the risk of stressing storage potatoes before they finally come out of the ground, which can lead to a rough surface or abnormal shape. So far, Juul said he likes what he sees.
“We’re very fortunate in the Columbia Basin to have control over our irrigation,” he said. “We’re very good irrigators.”
Bill Brewer, president and CEO of the Oregon Potato Commission, said other regions aren’t as lucky. A lack of water in reservoirs has affected harvest in Malheur County and Klamath Falls, though he still forecasts better yields than a year ago.
In 2013, Oregon grew approximately 2.15 billion pounds of potatoes worth $188.8 million, according to figures provided by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Brewer expects more this year.
“I really think this will be one of the better years we’ve had in production for a while,” Brewer said.
The Oregon Potato Commission reports 75 percent of the state’s potatoes are processed into value-added products like french fries and hash browns. Up to 15 percent of those products are exported.
Craig Reeder, chief financial officer of Hale Farms, said the season has been harsh at times but they are more than happy with the first half of their potato harvest.
“We’re feeling really good,” Reeder said. “Our initial quality and yield are both above average.”
Don Horneck, extension agronomist with Oregon State University at the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center, said the Columbia Basin is one of the premier places in the world to grow potatoes. The reason is a protracted growing season that’s conducive to consistency, despite obstacles along the way.
“It’s hard to put enough bad days together to really ruin our potato crop,” Horneck said.
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-564-4547.