Commercial farming has developed into a large-scale, complex operation with multiple checks and balances all working in harmony to provide our customers with the highest quality product available. At Potandon, we have spent the last two decades making strategic investments into our entire process, from seed to stem to storage to retail outlets to tables across the nation. It takes dedication plus constant upkeep and improvement to every part of the process to ensure we remain the industry leader in all respects.
Agronomy is the science and technology of producing and using plants; mainly for food but also for bio-fuels, fibers, and for land management. Agronomists do work in the areas of plant genetics, plant physiology, meteorology, and soil science plus many other hands-on tasks. Our team of Agronomists is involved with specific issues around potatoes and onions, including disease reduction, increasing yields, and producing more output using fewer inputs.
Even though our potatoes and onions are grown all across the nation, the “behind the scenes” work starts in Idaho. Our Idaho Falls based team of Agronomists work with Breeders, Plant Scientists, Operation Specialists, and our Production Teams to lay the groundwork for current and future growing operations. Each growing area is evaluated pre-season to determine any changes from prior years and how to overcome any obstacles. We establish a growing plan for the nation and adapt it as necessary. All field personnel are updated to make sure we stay consistent regardless of where we are growing.
The hands-on portion of an Agronomist’s work starts in the early spring, right after the snow melts. The fields are “dressed” to prepare them for planting. This includes tilling the soil, performing soil testing to determine pH and other levels of nutrients, some early fertilization and insect deterrent applications may also be applied pre-planting. Once everything is satisfactory, the fields are furrowed in rows that seem to go on for miles. A mechanical potato planter is used to place small seed potatoes or cut pieces of larger ones into the ground and pre-determined spacing. One of the interesting things to note is that if seed potatoes are cut into pieces the pieces need to contain viable “eyes” as they will eventually sprout at that spot once the seed has been planted. The most important factor when planting is the use of high quality, disease-free seed stock – quality inputs lead to quality harvests. Having a solid team of behind the scenes Agronomists gives Potandon a competitive advantage in the quality arena as compared to the rest of the industry.
Once the potatoes are in the ground, they are subject to a comprehensive program of irrigation, fertilization, and any necessary disease treatments. Due to each year being different from a growing condition perspective, there is no real “canned” approach to crop management, and it’s why we have such a large team of “boots on the ground” employees watching crop development. . Irrigation is a critical part of potato production as potatoes are a thirsty crop. State of the art systems are being used that water when the plants need it, not just on a schedule. These “pivots” are anchored in a single spot and are mechanically driven in huge circles to deliver water to the developing potatoes. Agronomists scout the fields at least twice a week in order to evaluate the evaporation levels, the overall health of the plants, water stress, and threats from disease or insects. Any needed crop applications can be mixed into the irrigation system, insuring full coverage.
The first few months of the cycle are focused on plant growth. Potato plants will develop quickly and as they mature will produce broad leaves which keep the lower part of the plant shaded. The spacing of the plants allow for air flow in between each vine. As the plants grow, their leaves touch forming a canopy across the field which serves to keep moisture from evaporating in between watering. The plants will start producing tubers (swollen roots) below the soil and depending on the type of potato this could be anywhere from 10 tubers to 100 tubers – this number is called the “set.” At this point, the grower pushes soil up on both sides of the plant, making small hills that act as a structure to prevent potatoes from pushing up through the soil where they’d be subject to greening and allow for additional tuber growth from a size perspective. The last part of the growing season is keeping the plants healthy as the potatoes will bulk up, with some eventually sizing up to baked potato size while others are smaller and are destined for consumer poly and mesh bags.
As the season comes to an end and the weather starts to cool down, the plants will start to wither and die – often time growers will kill the plants on a pre-determined schedule to produce potatoes of a certain size range or to heave them ready for harvesting at a certain time. The dead vines are removed from the field and the potatoes go through a final maturation period just sitting in the ground. During this time the skins thicken up which allows for mechanical harvesting to be done without cosmetically ruining the potato. This takes about three weeks on average.
Finally harvest time comes around. Specialized digging machines push long tines deep into the soil to get underneath the potatoes and gently turn them so they are on the surface of the field. Another machine lifts them onto a series of conveyor belts to remove soil, rocks, and other debris. The combine loads the potatoes into trucks which drive alongside which transport the newly dug potatoes from the field to climate controlled storage facilities for future use or directly to the packing shed to be washed, graded and packed for shipment to warehouses across the country.
Climate controlled storage facilities are one of the most amazing parts of commercial farming as they have temperature and humidity controls that allow growers to store potatoes for up to one year if necessary. These storage facilities are cool, dark and well ventilated to accommodate for long term storage of the potatoes. Throughout the winter, growers will slowly warm up a storage facility before it’s opened and the potatoes are brought into the packing facility for grading. The benefit of this type of process is that it breaks up the crop into many small lots which can be regulated against disease and other issues which can impact quality. These storages are on a schedule and are opened in succession as the winter and spring progresses into summer. Technology is always being applied to improve the process to insure we can provide high quality potatoes each and every week of the year.
Our onion farmers have a similar process, first by tilling their fields and preparing them prior to planting season. The fields are fertilized and prepared for the coming growing season that lasts 5-6 months. The seed beds are harrowed flat and the planting begins. Once onion seeds are planted, they are fertilized and watered. About 2/3 of the onion actually grows on top of the soil. The bulb of the onion grows at a rate that is directly reflective of the length of the day and the latitude at which it is grown. Irrigation is stopped according to the size and maturity of the plants. Farmers know when the onions reach maturity because the tops will naturally fall over.
Using a special attachment for the tractor, onions are lifted out of the ground to break the root system. Lifting is done when the temperature is less than 90 degrees. Onions are then left to dry on top of the soil for about 2 weeks. Onion tops are mechanically removed and the onions are placed in large rows, ready to harvest. Onion loaders load the onion bulbs into trucks to be transported to storage or packing facilities.
At the storage facilities, onions are loaded into bins or bulk storage. Onion bins are slotted wooden boxes that are about 4ft. by 6 ft. and 30 inches deep. Bulk storage is a huge pile of onions, 9 to 14 ft. tall. During storage air fans constantly blow air through bins and piles of onions to cure and dry the bulbs so that they do not go bad during storage or processing.
In each of these production steps, an Agronomist is present, making sure things go according to plan, or in some cases lending expertise advice when things go awry due to weather or other issues. By having a team of people who bring the benefits of science to the entire process, Potandon is able to stay at the forefront of the fresh potato and onion industry.