Heat, smoke not expected to diminish potato harvest

Potato harvest is underway across Oregon. Growers report the crop is in good shape despite a hot summer and smoke from wildfires.

Months of intense heat and smoky skies are not expected to diminish Oregon’s potato crop, with farmers across the state predicting average to above-average yields heading into the bulk of harvest.

Bill Brewer, CEO of the Oregon Potato Commission, said the overall impact of wildfire smoke is yet to be determined in spuds, but he has not heard of any major setbacks or problems with quality.

Hot weather can be hard on certain potato varieties, such as Russet Burbank — the gold standard for french fries — though in general, Brewer said he anticipates a roughly average harvest statewide and good quality potatoes.

“The higher heat during the summertime has been a bit of an issue, only on select varieties,” Brewer said. “So far, I have not heard any other negatives about other growing conditions.”

About 70 percent of Oregon potatoes are grown in the Columbia Basin around Hermiston and Boardman. Potatoes ranked as the seventh-most valuable agricultural commodity in the state in 2017, raking in $176.9 million.

Marty Myers, general manager of Threemile Canyon Farms near Boardman, said the growing season got off to a good start with warm weather early in the spring. Crews began harvesting early season potatoes on July 10, and Myers said yields have generally been very good.

Threemile Canyon Farms grows 9,000 acres of mostly conventional and some organic russets, all for local food processors. Myers said it is still too early to tell if triple-digit heat and smoke in July and August has impacted full season potatoes. Harvest just began Sept. 12, and will likely run through Oct. 20-25.

“Early season was very warm, and things looked pretty good,” Myers said. “Then summer heat comes in like it does every year and knocks us back a little bit. ... We always know it’s going to get hot over the summer, and at periods we’re going to have smoke.”

Brewer said he believes the smoke does have an effect on potato production, blocking sunlight needed by the plants and possibly altering taste, but more research is needed to back up anecdotal evidence.

Dan Chin, who runs Chin Family Farms Organic outside Merrill in the Klamath Basin, said they were socked in by smoke from wildfires raging in southern Oregon and northern California for a solid month and a half.

“A lot of times, you couldn’t see more than a couple of miles, or a mile,” Chin said. “It was pretty intense.”

However, Chin theorizes the smoke actually helped his potatoes this year by lowering the heat and causing the plants to put more energy into the tubers. He started harvesting Sept. 12, and said both size and quality are looking good.

“Just looking at it last year and this year, we’re seeing a little trend that the smoke didn’t really hurt our sizing and yield as much as we thought it might,” Chin said. “As far as our crop is concerned, we’re pretty happy with it.”

That being said, Chin said they definitely do not want smoke every year, which makes it harder for employees to work outside.

Mark Ward, chairman of the Oregon Potato Commission, farms 160 acres of potatoes on the north edge of Baker City. He is targeting Sept. 24 to begin harvest, and like others, expects to see solid yields.

Ward exclusively supplies potatoes to Simplot for making french fries. He said this summer’s heat, including five days of triple-digit temperatures, may increase the likelihood of sugar ends, a defect in potatoes that results in unappealing brown ends.

“We won’t know that until we deliver some potatoes,” Ward said. “If you were managing your water properly, you should be OK.”

The Baker Valley also experienced 10 days of smoke so thick the surrounding Elkhorn Mountains couldn’t be seen, Ward said, which may affect potato yields, though he does not see it being a tremendous problem.

“Just what I’ve seen doing our little hand-digs, they look good,” Ward said.

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