The prospects looked very good for Irish potatoes in the South as the planting season got under way this spring. Mark Bright and his cousin Roger of Elizabeth City N.C., planted 320 acres this year, all for the fresh market, and had high hopes for a good market.
“It was a short crop last fall,” says Bright. “Potatoes in storage are lower than normal in the US and in Canada.
According to a USDA report in mid-April, the 13 major potato states held 114 million cwt. of potatoes in storage April 1, down 11 percent from last year and 9 percent below 2004. Potatoes in storage account for 31 percent of the 2005 fall storage states' production, down 1 percent from last year.
That spells opportunity for Southern potato producers, who get to the market sooner than farmers in most of the major states.
All the Brights' potatoes are sold mainly to restaurants and homeowners. The Brights sell mainly to one buyer in Pennsylvania and one in Canada.
They ship initially to repackers. They keep their product cool prior to shipping. “Most of our clients want them cooled so they don't break down from the heat,” says Bright. “We have coolers now to do it.”
One key practice for the Brights is their use of chemicals to dessicate or destroy the vines in preparation for harvest. It is a harvest management tool, says Bright.
“We kill the tops to set the skin,” he says. “We can vary harvest by about two weeks based on when we do this.”
Vine killing with chemicals often aids skin set, depending upon maturity of the crop, according to recommendations from North Carolina State University. Inhibition of heat sprouts has also been observed with chemical vine killing, it adds.
“It allows the potatoes in the soil to go dormant and set their skins, so the skins don't slip during harvest,” says Mark Clough, researcher with the North Carolina State University department of horticultural science. “A spray vine kill allows you to keep up a stream of potatoes.”
The harvest window in North Carolina runs from around the middle of June to the middle of July, says Clough. It can't go much longer: After that, night-time temperatures get so hot the potato plant can't respirate.
Once the potatoes are harvested, the Brights plant soybeans or milo behind them. It is not a no-till situation — they tear up the land to a considerable degree digging the potatoes, then we disk it and plant the following crop flat.
The Brights divided their potato acreage among red, white and yellow flesh potatoes. They all behave similarly in plant growth, but there can definitely be differences in their markets.
“When we start, there is a lot of guess work on what type to grow,” says Bright. “We want to diversify and hope we hit a good market.”
Their yellow flesh variety, a potato called Yukon Gold that was bred to look like it has butter in it, has performed very well for them recently. Sometimes referred to as a “gourmet” potato, this variety has a creamy texture and mild buttery flavor that consumers like for baking, mashing and roasting.
“Yukon has become well known because of its excellent flavor and texture, and for creamed potatoes, it is the best,” says Clough. “But I think I would choose Vivaldi, an exceptional yellow flesh spud with a lower density than Yukon which allows it to cook quicker.”
One thing Clough likes about the whole Yukon Gold experience is that it was marketed to stores under its own name, rather than just as a yellow fleshed potato.
“Now it has name recognition,” he says. “Yukon Gold is fetching a higher price than other varieties because its name is specific.”
Clough would like to see table varieties sold by specific variety name rather than in bulk.
“It will help the consumer get a consistent quality, and it will help the grower obtain a greater income stream,” he says.
Potato plantings in North Carolina in 2006 may reach 15,500 acres, says Clough, which would be a few more than in 2005 but less than the historical average of about 20,000 acres. The decline has been due to market trends, he says. “People just don't buy potatoes at grocery stores like they used to. The Atkins diet may have had something to do with it. Fortunately, the popularity of that diet is waning.”
In North Carolina, he says, about 60 percent of the crop goes into potato chips and 40 percent is consumed as table stock. Table stock is usually bagged, while chip potatoes are loaded in bulk onto trucks for transport to processing plants.
Most of North Carolina's potatoes are grown in the rich, sandy to organic soils of the northeastern corner of the state along the coast. Nine coastal counties account for the bulk of the production: Beaufort, Camden, Carteret, Currituck, Hyde, Pamlico, Pasquotank, Tyrrell and Washington.