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Idaho's Norkotah crop looks good, Burbank crop may be lighter

The 2018 Idaho potato harvest got under way with Russet Norkotahs in early August, and by the first week in September, most growers in the state had started digging Norkotahs. While there is always variation from one field to another, growers were generally reporting good volumes with a good size structure and very good quality.

Russet Burbanks, which are harvested later, could be another matter.yyy

While early test digs showed indications of a large crop of good-sized potatoes, after the first of August the Burbanks appeared to stop growing, and as of late August, test digs were showing small size and low yields in many fields. Growers remained hopeful that in the time remaining before harvest, the potatoes would size up enough to produce a fairly normal crop.

Red potatoes, yellow potatoes and other specialty non-russet varieties are, like the Norkotahs, harvested earlier than the Burbanks. And as with the Norkotahs, the early harvests have shown generally good crops in terms of both yield and quality.

Overall, growers told The Produce News that the determining factor is not the variety per se but the timing of the planting and harvest.

Weather-wise, it has been an unusual summer in southern Idaho in a couple of respects. Growing conditions were ideal through June, but July brought a prolonged heat wave. Then throughout August, the skies over much of the potato-growing regions were filled with smoke — first drifting up from wildfires in California and then coming from fires in central Idaho.

While the precise effects of these conditions on the crop remain a matter of speculation, the thinking of some growers is that potatoes that had been planted early were well-established before the hot weather arrived, and the plants had developed good canopies that gave them protection from the heat and allowed the potatoes to continue to grow. By the time wildfire smoke began blocking the sun, those crops were pretty much made.

By contrast, the potatoes planted later had not yet developed good protective canopies when the heat hit, so the unusually extreme heat of July could have adversely affected them.

Of perhaps greater significance is that in the Burbanks and other later plantings, the tubers were still quite small when smoke moved into the area. The smoke hung around throughout most of August, when the potatoes should have been bulking up, filtering out the sunlight the plants needed to make a crop. There appears to be, at least, a fairly broad consensus for that explanation.

“We are packing new crop [Norkotahs] now, and quality, size and everything look really good,” Derek Peterson of Wilcox Fresh said Aug. 22, “Basically, I think anything that was planted early came off really good on yield and quality. I think the stuff that was planted a little later on,” including not only later varieties but fields located north of Idaho Falls, “have been a little bit delayed in development. Everybody seems to agree that these darn fires put a lot of smoke in the atmosphere and stunted the development on the later potatoes.

“I still think there is going to be a crop there,” he said, but “we may not get the yields that we would like, and they may be a little bit smaller size.” However, “the plants are relatively healthy, so we are hoping the [smoke] clears out and gives these potatoes a chance to finish strong” before frost arrives.

The Norkotah crop “looks really good from what we see so far,” said Scott Mickelsen of Rigby Produce. On the later fields it is still hard to determine, he said, but judging from test digs, “it’s hit or miss. There are some of our fields that didn’t grow up as much as some of the other ones. I don’t know if there is any reason we can narrow it down to.”

Acreage-wise, Idaho growers planted 311,316 acres of potatoes in 2018, up 3,550 acres from the prior year, but most of that is for processing, and fresh acreage is down 8,877 acres, according to Rick Shawver of United Potato Growers of Idaho.