Klamath family farms fills holiday potato demand

Farmers in the Klamath Basin on the California-Oregon border, a primary growing region for fresh and chipping potatoes, have been shipping potatoes in time to reach customers' holiday tables.


Dan Chin of Wong Potatoes Inc., a grower, packer and shipper who grows two-thirds of his potatoes in California and one-third in Oregon, farms organic and conventional varieties including red, yellow, russet, purple, white and fingerling potatoes. He said this is a busy time, as local growers ship potatoes that were harvested in the fall.


"Demand is pretty solid on all of the potato varieties," said Chin, whose potatoes are mostly sold in U.S. retail markets and the food service sector, with some exported.


Potato harvest in the region begins in September and continues through October. Despite a hard frost in late October that damaged some potatoes, Chin said, the potato crop did well. Potatoes grown in the Klamath Basin will be stored in temperature-controlled facilities until about May.

"This year we had a really good growing season. Potato quality and yield look good," Chin said, adding that farmers were "really fortunate" because of improved water availability.


"It's really hard to make a plan to farm row crops when you don't know you're going to have any water," he said.


Growers are able to provide shoppers with an abundance of flavor and texture choices such as red, yellow, russet, purple, white and fingerling potato varieties. However, Chin said, the challenge is controlling consistency.


"We'll have a good variety that tastes good, looks good and eats good, but we can't consistently ensure that gets to the consumer," he said. "If you go into the store one week, you'll get maybe our best variety and the next week, they buy it from somebody else and it won't be the same."


Chin said demand for fresh potatoes remains consistent and increases this time of year.


"We're seeing a lot of good demand for potatoes. Russets have always kind of been the king of the volume, but a lot of people are moving to more yellows and specialty varieties like fingerlings and purples, so we're making a dent in the consumer palate as far as what people are willing to try," he said.


Elsewhere in the Klamath Basin, Mathew Trotman, farm manager for Baley-Trotman Farms in Malin, Oregon, grows about 375 acres of potatoes for the company. Baley-Trotman mostly grows chip-stock potatoes used to make potato chips and ships potatoes as far away as Korea, but its domestic markets are mostly in the Bakersfield and Modesto areas.


During the Klamath Water Users Association Fall Harvest Tour, Trotman said chipper potatoes typically have to be in storage for two weeks, then a sugar analysis is done. The sugars have to be completely burnt out of the potato, as Trotman called it, before they are marketable for chipping.


"We just can't compete fresh market-wise with the russet Burbanks and the Norkotahs from Idaho and Washington," Trotman said, adding that many basin growers have transitioned from fresh-market potatoes to chippers.


Trotman has grown some organic chipper potatoes, but because there are far fewer organic chipper potatoes grown, it makes it difficult to fill a storage building. This in turn creates problems with maintaining the temperature in the building, he said.


The organic chipper market is small, Trotman said, and typical consumers of organic potatoes aren't looking for french fries or potato chips.


He also explained how potatoes are cleaned, starting with the fresh load system that removes stones and dirt clods. Each truck takes about 10 minutes to unload 30,000-35,000 pounds of potatoes, which are put into a hopper that carries them into a wash system.


"It's basically just a maze. The potatoes can go back and forth, back and forth, kind of rubbing on each other, and that's what gets most of the dirt off," Trotman said.


From there, they go through a de-stoner that removes any remaining objects. As much dirt as possible is removed before the potatoes are put on a conveyor belt and moved into storage.


Many times, it's assumed that growing the crop for four months is the hard part, but storage is taken just as seriously, Trotman said.


The temperature and humidity are controlled by a computer, based on the temperature needs of the potatoes. Three louvers can be opened or closed, depending on the temperature needs. For instance, if it's set at 55 degrees, and it's 55 degrees outside, all three louvers will open to bring in as much fresh air as possible.


Controlling the humidity is important because, with the potatoes being stacked, pressure bruises can form.


"We're shooting for 95 to 99% humidity," Trotman said.


Chipper potatoes aren't good for boiling or baking, he said, because they don't have the salts and sugars that baking potatoes do. Chipper potatoes are low sugar, so when fried they have a white appearance. A russet potato, on the other hand, tends to fry a little darker because of the sugar content in the potato.


There is a quality control lab at the facility and every load that comes out will be tested for specific attributes and fry quality.


"Once a week during storage season, we test the potatoes for their sugar content. We test this because we need to know the maturity of the product in storage and because we need to know if these products are ready to ship. So, we're looking for a potato that has close to zero sugars in it," Trotman said.


In the Klamath Basin, Chin said, farmers once grew about 30,000 acres of russet potatoes. Now, there are about 16,000 acres of fresh potatoes, chipper potatoes and a small acreage of potatoes for seed.


The other major potato-growing regions in California are in Kern, San Joaquin, Imperial, Riverside and San Diego counties.


(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. Kathy Coatney is a reporter in Bend, Oregon.)


Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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