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Industry insiders expect a shortage of seed potatoes this coming season due to last fall’s harvesting difficulties.

Raising certified seed potatoes for seed is an important business for potato growers in the northern region of the Red River Valley. A large portion of the seed potato supply is raised in this region, with North Dakota ranking second in the nation for certified seed acreage and Minnesota seventh.

On the North Dakota side of the river, just over 13,000 acres were inspected as certified seed potatoes this past season, according to Kent Sather, director of potato programs for the North Dakota State Seed Department. However, some of those acres were not harvested this fall due to saturated soil conditions and freezing conditions that ended the harvest before all the crop was dug out.

“After contacting the certified potato seed growers in the state, who still had potatoes in the field after harvest was completed, I calculated somewhere between 16 and 17 percent of those 13,000 acres were not harvested,” Sather said. “The other concern about that is it was certified as seed, but some of those harvested acres had already been destined to other non-seed situations.”

Once a certified potato seed grower has fulfilled any contractual obligation, they have the option to sell the excess production for processing, Sather noted.

“However, a lot of those potatoes left in the ground would have been seed that would have been sold either to commercial growers next year or replanted with certification to certified seed growers,” he explained.

In Minnesota, slightly over 4,900 acres were inspected during the growing season for the certified market. But how many of those acres were harvested is a difficult question to answer, according to Eric Byre, plant protection program supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

“In the Red River Valley and the northwestern part of Minnesota, there was significant loss of acreage, but as you go south and east, conditions improved and so did the crop,” Byre said. “Not all acreage of every certified seed potato field was able to be harvested, so it is very difficult to estimate.”

Sather and Byre are in agreement that the red potato varieties will see the largest shortage of seed in the spring of 2020 and that could have an impact on growers in the Red River Valley. The region is the largest producer of red potatoes in the country and it is sometimes called the “Idaho of Red Potatoes.”

Red potatoes are commonly used for what is called “table stock” and are those potatoes consumers usually buy at the grocery store and take home for cooking.

Sather expects the Red Norland variety to be in the shortest supply.

“Knowing that there is going to be a shortage, I attended a meeting with some of my certification colleagues in early December, and I mentioned to them that we would be short on seed and that if any of them have growers who might have surplus seed available, please pass the information on to us,” Sather said.

He said he has only gotten a couple of responses and those who did reply have very limited acreage available. So there seems to be a shortage across the United States and Canada as well, since his request was made to some of the industry people in Canada.

Normally, North Dakota produces over 2.2 billion pounds of potatoes annually, with Minnesota not far behind with 1.9 billion pounds.

Could this impact seeded acres next spring?

Probably. There is a seed law in North Dakota that requires the purchase of certified seed for commercial production, Sather explained. However, there is a clause within that seed law that allows a commercial grower to replant one more year after he has purchased certified seed. This “year-out-seed” can be used only on their own farm – they cannot sell those potatoes for seed or move it to another grower. Usually this isn’t a common practice, but things may change this coming spring.

How many had the foresight to see this potential shortage and held back some of their production to store on their own farm for seed next spring isn’t known, according to Sather.

As far as this replanting seed clause, there is some concern about disease issues that can be really detrimental to a potato grower, whether it be a seed grower or a commercial grower.

“Some pathogen issues can spread, and it is mostly the viruses that are in potatoes,” he said. “They can spread via insect vectors – that is the most potential pathogen that could impact neighboring fields.”

Diseases, on the other hand, are usually contained to the certain grower’s field, unless they are sharing planting equipment with other potato growers. There are lab tests that can be conducted to determine if there are disease or viral factors within a lot of potatoes, and although not required by law, Sather suggests farmers have their year-out-seed supply tested.

Quality of seed stock

Both Byre and Sather indicated the quality of the seed potatoes that were harvested have remained in good-to-excellent condition thus far in storage.

“I would have expected some storage issues with soft-rot type pathogens,” Sather said, “but inspectors that I have talked with are telling me storage conditions are actually holding pretty well for the seed growers we have inspected for thus far – and they were pretty surprised by that as well.”

Addressing a potential seed shortage

Byre said he would advise that growers to seek out their certified potato seed for the planting season soon.

“A simple way for a grower to know that he or she is purchasing certified potato seed is to ask for a North American Health Certificate, and to ask that it is inspected at the shipping point,” he said. “The North American Health Certificate ensures that the potato seed came from a potato seed certification program, and the shipping point inspection ensures the quality of the potato seed shipment.”

He encouraged growers in Minnesota to log on to the following Internet link:

https://www.leg.state.mn.us/docs/2019/other/191039.pdf.

In preparing for the coming planting season, Sather echoed the previous advice, saying growers should get in touch with their past seed suppliers as soon as possible as determine what stocks those suppliers have available.

“Call now – don’t wait until March or April,” Sather said, “and also watch for industry meetings. I know Andy Robinson, the NDSU Extension potato specialist, hopes to have an industry-wide meeting about seed supply sometime in late January.”

Sather closed out his conversation by saying there is developing competition pricewise, which could lure some of the above contract production of certified seed into the commercial market, since the industry is already starting to see higher prices paid for table stock potatoes than for seed potatoes. This could cause some potatoes that are certified for seed to be instead sold to a wash plant for commercial production, which is becoming an additional concern for the coming growing season.