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Potato harvest digging in for long haul PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kyle Arnoldy   

As the summer winds down, life gets much more hectic for those in the potato industry. With the early harvest under way at Western Potatoes Inc., workers are preparing for the influx of hours with the harvest lasting throughout September.

It has been an ideal summer in Holyoke for potato farmers. With more cooler days and moisture than in 2012 and no hail to speak of in the area, the harvest outlook is strong.

“This year’s harvest has been really good,” said Western Potatoes branch manager Steve Moore. “It has probably been one of the better crops I have seen, early crop-wise.”

The early harvest can be as short as two weeks and can last as long as a month for Western Potatoes. The duration of the early harvest is determined by the amount of orders they receive, specifically from Frito-Lay where the potatoes are made into potato chips.

As the potatoes rush by them, Western Potatoes Inc. workers, pictured from left, Gustavo Juarez, Kenny Detwiler and Moe Smith make sure no diseased or rotten potatoes make it to the Frito-Lay semi.  

—Enterprise photo

As of Thursday, Aug. 22, 40 of the 1,000 acres of the round white potatoes that had been planted in April had been dug up to meet orders. Western Potatoes has contracts for 60,000 bags of potatoes, around 140 semi loads, for the early harvest. Each semi load typically weighs 41,000-44,000 pounds.

Moore said it will be an average yield based on the samples they have done, which is great news considering last year the yields were down a bit.

Once potatoes are loaded into field trucks from the harvester, the goods are taken to Western Potatoes headquarters where loose dirt is separated from the potatoes. They are then pre-washed and sorted.

Frito-Lay mandates limits on the size of potatoes they accept. Beofre the potatoes reach the back of a semi, potatoes deemed too small or too large are removed. Potatoes going to Frito-Lay are ideally between 1 7/8 and 4 inches. The specific gravity of the potatoes is also measured. Potatoes with a higher specific gravity require less fryer oil during the process of making potato chips.

Once loaded into the semis, the shipment sees a quick turnaround as potatoes that leave Holyoke in the morning can be made into potato chips that night in Denver.

The early harvest is just the tip of the iceberg of the work to come during the full harvest. There is really no break between the early harvest and the full harvest as workers quickly return to the fields.

During harvest, workers are in the field by 5 a.m., digging up potatoes before the weather gets too warm. Once the pulp temperature of the potato rises to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, they are likely to bruise more, so digging must come to a halt.

The sorting stage of the harvest is important to make sure only the
best potatoes are shipped out. After the potatoes are washed,
Western Potatoes employees, pictured from left, Eufrocina Perez,
Guadalupe Hermosillo and Luz Andujo do their best to remove any
potatoes that do not meet size requirements.  

—Enterprise photo

Potatoes loaded into the Frito-Lay semi Thursday morning, Aug. 22
will be made into potato chips before the day is over.  

—Enterprise photo

While only six farm trucks are running during the early harvest, 14 are used during the full harvest. Moore said last year they only took two days off during harvest, and most workers rack up over 100 hours on the job in a given week. He said he has even worked throughout the night to ensure the job is done within the small time frame when everything needs to be completed.

Western Potatoes has five fields in Lamar, Neb., and another five around Holyoke. The closest field is about eight miles due south on Phillips County Road 45, and the furthest field is approximately 42 miles south of Paoli.

Once all of the potatoes are dug up, they will be sorted and washed and put into storage. Western Potatoes has eight storage buildings, each capable of holding 50,000 bags weighing 100 pounds each. In a really good year, all storage buildings will be full, but this year all eight are not expected to be filled as less acres were planted. It typically takes 1,200 acres to fill all of them.

Work does not end once the potatoes enter storage. It is a constant job to maintain the equipment and the correct humidity in the storage buildings and to ensure the quality of the potatoes.

Storage potatoes are shipped throughout the year. In most years, the storage buildings are drained by mid March. Last year, however, with the headquarters in Alliance, Neb., sending excess potatoes to Holyoke, Holyoke was still shipping potatoes as they were planting potatoes in April.

Holyoke Enterprise August 29, 2013