Opportunities available to grow organic potatoes
By Lorraine Cavener
TWIN FALLS - The beginnings of a small co-op of growers interested in growing organic Idaho potatoes was formed Thursday. The group gathered informally after a Potato Growers of Idaho meeting called to discuss organic potato growing opportunities available. Seth Pemsler of Idaho Potato Commission, said the commission receives a lot of calls asking about organic potatoes. He read from a USA Today story, which said that Frito-Lay could eventually be producing a line of organic potato chips.
Frito-Lay is not currently producing organic chips because they can't get enough organic potatoes, Pemsler said. But if Frito-Lay pursues organic chips it would be a huge opportunity for Idaho growers.
In addition other organic food markets exist - such as retailers wanting to expand organics sections, he said.
"The market is there," he said. "The challenge is you have to be able to walk in and say I can supply you." The profit margin for growers is a lot higher than in conventional markets, Pemsler said.
Keith Esplin, executive director of Potato Growers of Idaho, agreed, saying that the conventional market had been stagnant or shrinking for a number of years. The closure of the Heyburn Simplot plant illustrated the shrinking conventional market and was an indication to PGI that new markets needed to be found, he said.
But it wasn't until he gained an awareness of the demand for organics that he began to see it as a potential market for growers. "A year ago I didn't see how organic was going to fit into the system," he said.
Other states such as California, Oregon and Washington are producing organics on a fairly large scale. Since Idaho is known for its high quality potatoes, Idaho could be a leader in organic potato production, he said. "Idaho potatoes are presented as a premier product in the marketplace," Pemsler said. "How can we not be part of organic?"
Idaho has 13 growers who produce about 350 acres of organic potatoes, according to 2002 statistics, said Margaret Misner, program director for the organics department of Idaho State Department of Agriculture. Two of those growers, who were present at the meeting, gave ideas on how organic production could work. Rotations can be done with alfalfa, hay and other dairy feed crops that can be sold to dairies, said Mike heath, a certified organic grower from Buhl.
Heath, who has been raising organic crops for 20 years, said he raises about 35 acres of organic fresh pack and processing potatoes. If the market does not grow too many additional producers could kill the organics market, Heath said.
He produces potatoes for a chipper called Kettle Foods. "Their market has certainly expanded," he said. He has had contracts for organic potatoes for french fries and diced potatoes in the past.
"I have a feeling that for Idaho potatoes there is a demand," he said. "I'm seeing this more and more."
Fred Brossy, an organic potato farmer from Shoshone, agreed. "I think it does make sense for Idaho to be a big player," he said.
But Brossy also urged caution to those who thought about raising a large acreage of organic potatoes.
Organic potatoes can be high cash crops only in the years when they can be grown.
A number of rotation years - building the soil back - are necessary to grow good organic crops, he said.
"It's all aimed at building fertility," Brossy said. During rotation years alfalfa or other feed crops that are not high cash crops can be grown, he said. A good organic wheat market is available. "That's how we can justify getting the high price for the year you do it," Brossy said.
Lack of pests such as wire worm and nematodes because of the high organic matter in the soil, is another advantage to growing organic, he said. A new organic potato beetle control product has recently become available, Brossy said. "I did have a potato beetle wreck for a few years," he said.
But potato beetles can a problem with conventional growing too, Brossy said.
"They are part of Idaho's insect ecology," he said.
Freelance writer Lorraine Cavener can be reached at 208 438-8446 or firstname.lastname@example.org.