Growing Potatoes Sustainably
|By showcasing successful potato growers, Bryan Hopkins (right), shown with Don Horneck, prompted some 25 farmers to try new conservation measures. |
Photo by Bryan Hopkins
Potato Growers Emulate “Model” Methods for Higher Profits
University of Idaho potato cropping specialist Bryan Hopkins went straight to the source when he wanted to learn why more potato farmers weren’t using the best management practices recommended by researchers. After convening an informal farmer focus group, Hopkins learned that growers wanted to see a respected neighbor apply a new practice before they made major changes.
With a SARE grant, Hopkins found and publicized 14“model” potato growers who use a range of growing practices that enable them to reduce their pesticide and fertilizer use while maximizing returns. At field days, demonstrations, and workshops, Hopkins showed results from his on-farm trials comparing the model grower practices alongside plots receiving higher rates of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Growers were wowed by the results: The model plots netted 3 percent more profit per acre than the plots with higher inputs. Similar yields and reduced costs for buying agrichemicals swung the management-heavy plots into the profit column.
The list of best management practices for potatoes, with a dozen potato scientists from three Northwest States contributing, spans more than 40 pages. They include recommendations about incorporating crop residue into soil for fertility, scouting fields to check on crop health, and incorporating green manure to reduce populations of nematodes and pathogens. By showcasing successful potato growers, Bryan Hopkins (right), shown with Don Horneck, prompted some 25 farmers to try new conservation measures.
The crux of the issue is basing it onsite-specific needs,” Hopkins said. “Too many growers have a recipe approach to farming based on what worked last year, regardless of the situation. Research would say it’s not the best approach. At a minimum, each field should be treated as a unique entity.”
Growers are responding. Twenty-five potato farmers have changed their practices, impacting some 110,000 acres—or one-quarter of Idaho’s potato production, Hopkins said.
“Idaho soils and climate are ideal for potato production and, in an average year, you can frequently avoid intensive fungicide use,” Hopkins said. “You can watch the weather, the disease forecasting, and look for local disease pressure. And if you don’t need fungicide, don’t put it on.”
Thompson Farms, a six-brother potato-growing partnership in Blackfoot, ID, participated in the research trial. The Thompsons use 3- to 4-year rotations, reducing their need to fumigate for nematodes and other soil pests. They test their crops and soil before adding fertilizer. “We’re pretty conscientious,” said Ron Thompson. “If you’re not conscientious right now, you’re out of the potato business.” [View the project report.]