Potatoes: More Than Meets the Eye

By: Colleen Isaacson, Contributing Writer

The loveable Mr. Potato Head has been one of America’s favorite toy celebrities since 1952. What started out as a group of body parts used to stick into real vegetables to give them life and expression developed into an iconic symbol of “America’s Favorite Vegetable” … the potato. Just as Mr. Potato Head has a place in America’s hearts, the real potato has an equal place at their tables. Potatoes are an important staple for Americans and aerial application plays a critical roll in keeping up with the demands.

The first potato patches were established in North America in 1719 and today there are several varietals grown in more than 36 states including Idaho, Washington, Oregon, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Colorado, California and Maine, with Idaho being the top producing state. It’s the leading vegetable crop and the second most consumed food in the United States, just after dairy. In fact, according to the United States Potato Board, the average American eats over 100 pounds of potatoes every year whether they are frozen, fresh, dehydrated, canned or in the form of chips.

While Russet Burbanks are the most widely used potatoes in the United States there are several other varietals including white, red, yellow, fingerlings, gold, blue and purple. Burbanks’ versatility make them great for baking, mashing or frying, but each type of potato has its own distinct flavor, skin and texture to complement any dish. The possibilities are as endless as Mr. Potato Head’s expressions.

Why the Sky?

Although ground sprayers have their advantages, in some situations they can cause several problems for potatoes. As potatoes grow and encroach on the outsides of their rows, the wheels of the ground rig drive through the furrows and put pressure against the potatoes damaging the outermost spuds. In addition, ground sprayers have the potential to spread disease and compact the soil. When tubers grow, they require loose soil to grow more evenly and produce a more aesthetically looking potato, so soil compaction from the ground rigs can have less than pleasing results.

The role of aerial application in potato farming is “vital,” says NAAREF President Rod Thomas of Thomas Helicopters in Gooding, Idaho. “There is a time in the life of that crop when nothing else is better than an aerial application, due to speed, efficiency, quality, lack of crop damage and no soil compaction.”

All Over the Map

No matter how former vice presidents spell “potato,” the best potatoes come from the best seed and the United States’ diverse geography, technical expertise, strict regulation and commitment to quality allow for a variety of certified seed potato growing areas. According to the United States Potato Board, seed is typically grown in remote regions with low temperatures to control insects and disease and are often isolated from commercial production to ensure healthier tubers. Fifteen states are ideal for producing seed and span from the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast. Seed potatoes are typically smaller than commercial potatoes and are cut into sections so at least one eye is present in the seed piece to be planted.

The Russet Burbank is the spud that made Idaho famous for their potatoes, but Idaho has ideal growing conditions for a variety of potatoes because of its rich volcanic soil, temperate climate and irrigation. In southeastern Idaho there are primarily Russet Burbanks, red potatoes and various Russet varieties like the Norkotah Russets. A farmer in southeastern Idaho who works with Desert Air Ag says that over half of his farmland is potatoes, primarily Russet Burbanks and Klondike Rose varieties that will go to the retail and food service sectors with 30‒40% of those being dehydrated. Dehydrated potatoes come in slices, dices, shreds, granules and flour and can be used as a base food as well as a standalone ingredient. They are lightweight, prepared easily and store well since they don’t require refrigeration.

Farther west in central California the combination of sandy soils, moderate climate and little rain gives farmers the ability to control their environment better than other regions can. Round white potatoes and several varieties that are identified with numbers for large chip manufacturers are grown here for the potato chip industry. Sandy soils also provide a great environment for chip-stock in other parts of the country. According to the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, Wisconsin is the top producing state east of the Mississippi and the third largest potato producer overall. They mostly grow potatoes raised for chip stock and Russet varieties like the Norkotah.

Although potatoes are still a significant part of agriculture in some areas, the dynamic has changed in other parts of the country. Thomas Helicopters Inc. doesn’t spray as many potatoes as they use to because the “dairies have moved in and changed the crop structure, and we’re seeing more corn now grown for silage and grain because of the high worldwide price,” Thomas said. It’s a similar story for former NAAA President and retired ag aviator Jim Avery in Savannah, N.Y., who said, “The areas have gotten built up with corn and soybeans and less potatoes are planted because the yields tend to be more predictable out west.” Despite potato spraying being drastically reduced over the years in this area he said aerial application is still “very important because of the weather conditions. Almost 100% of our potatoes are on reclaimed swampland, like muck ground, and very treacherous for tractors. So a successful potato farmer really has to have access to an airplane.”

Pest and Disease Prevention

No matter what unique circumstances each region has, aerial application plays a critical role in managing potential threats such as diseases, insects and weeds. The largest threats to the crops are evolving pests and early and late blight, a fungus that spreads quickly when there is increased humidity, thunderstorm activity and winds to carry and spread spores. Aerial application is the fastest way to prevent the spread of these diseases and treat fields.

Some varieties of potatoes require a longer growing season than others, like the Russet Burbank. “Russet Burbanks are treated more aggressively because they have to live a little longer,” says Thomas. Other varieties like the Norkotah Russets and red varieties have a shorter growing season. Overall it can take anywhere from four to seven months from planting to harvesting depending on the varietal. Potatoes grow better in cool environments so in parts of the country like the Northwest, Midwest and Northeast, they are planted anywhere from mid to late April and are harvested late September to early October with some varieties being harvested as early as July. In warmer parts of the country like California, planting is typically started in December and harvested in the early summer before the temperatures get too hot.

Early in the season, prior to or just after the emergence of potatoes, it’s common to apply herbicides to the crop to control weeds. In some regions they are applied by air and in other areas where the surrounding crops are more diverse, they are applied by ground sprayers. “As soon as the potatoes get large enough that the leaves touch the wheels of the ground sprayer, the applications are all done by air,” Medina Flying Services’ Brian Rau, 2010 NAAA President, said of his area in Medina, N.D.

Each region also deals with perennial pests whether it’s the potato beetle, loopers or aphids. In the Northwest and Midwest regions, “Most potatoes are planted with a soil insecticide that keeps the insects down for most of the season,” Rau said.

Isaacson agreed. “We used to do a lot of insect control but now farmers are combining it at the time of planting,” he said. “We’re seeing farmers taking advantage of more foliar applications because the plants respond quickly and are provided better protection against disease. We typically combine them with fungicides to save the farmer money.” Foliar application isn’t common in all areas but is an important part of the work in Idaho.

Blight spraying typically begins early to mid June for the cooler regions and is scheduled on a 7- to 14-day rotation with five to seven applications per season. That rotation can be shortened or lengthened depending on the pressure from the environment or the variety of the potato.

Desert Air Ag’s customer said, “Depending on the season, I’ll schedule applications at least every 30 days with a minimum of four applications per season. We pretty much use all aerial application, and although we can get by without it, the airplanes make our applications more timely. Nowadays more treatments are needed because there is more disease pressure than their use to be.”

California doesn’t have the disease pressure they have in other regions because of the dry climate. John Moore of White Wolf Potato Company & Moore Farms and brother of NAAA Executive Director Andrew Moore says, “We’re pretty lucky here in Kern County. We’ve got a pretty mild climate, pretty much high desert, dry, we only get about six inches of average rainfall a year. Of course, everything is irrigated.” He treats for blight and has insect pressures to a lesser extent. It’s less common in his area to use aerial application, he says. “When you don’t want to add more water and make the [disease pressures] worse, that’s when we’ll go to an aerial applicator.”

Unlike the drier climates of the West, the high humidity areas around the Great Lakes require more blight treatments. In an ideal season applicators will apply 12 blight sprays per season and 15‒17 if the disease pressure is intense. Aerial application is necessary in this region since the soil is often too muddy from heavy rains to get a ground-sprayer in the fields. While farmers typically budget and schedule the fungicide, on really wet years like the summer of 2010 Reabe Spraying Service’s Damon Reabe of Waupun, Wis., did a lot of what he calls “911 work.”

Doug Bowers, a pilot for Maine Helicopters in Whitefield, Maine, shared the same stress in 2011 when record rains fell. The region got more than double its normal rainfall, and a late blight epidemic broke out. “It was rampant and completely wiped out some growers,” he said. “So it was an incredibly busy season spraying for late blight; I was on a three-day cycle.”

While Reabe said they typically start preventative applications in the Midwest during the first week of June, the timeline is also based on the University of Wisconsin’s disease forecasting model. This model uses disease severity values, which is a measurement of temperature, humidity and rainfall and factors in the growth stage of the plant to determine when to apply product.

With three locations in Waupun, Plover and Plainfield, Wis., approximately 90% of Reabe Spraying Service’s customer base relies on them to apply all of their fungicide applications. “We have core customers that actually park their ground sprayers and have us fly,” Reabe said. “The University of Wisconsin has done extensive potato research. They recommend potato growers that perform preventative fungicide treatments with ground equipment harvest and store the potatoes on each side of the wheel track separately from the rest of the field. Their research has shown that the wheel track rows don’t grade or store as well, resulting in extensive storage and grading loss. Ultimately, our customers have determined that the cost of aerial application is more than offset by the savings in additional harvest costs, storage losses and grading losses.”

Some Wisconsin growers maintain a fire-extinguisher philosophy when it comes to aerial application: they like having it available, but only reach for it in emergencies. As Reabe noted, “We’ve had growers explain that while they don’t rely on us to perform their preventative fungicide applications, they would not raise potatoes without access to our services. These grower’s must know that there is an alternate means of treatment when soils get too wet for ground equipment.”

As new varieties of potatoes come forth, so do the challenges of evolving pests and diseases, and aerial applicators are continuously striving to stay ahead of those threats. Their timely applications give them the upper hand and tremendous potential to prevent their spread. It’s essential that farms and aerial applicators work together to combat the agricultural challenges they face in a season. It’s this partnership and hard work that allows them to get good quality produce into the hands and onto the tables of millions of people worldwide.

Whether it be memories of Mr. Potato Head, eating mashed potatoes during the holidays, enjoying a loaded baker or fresh-cut fries at a state fair, pulling the trigger of a spud gun or using a potato in a science experiment, the potato is not simply a vegetable—it’s deeply embedded in our American culture.