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Monday, Aug. 29, 2016

Bootheel potato farmers say their crop has real 'a peel'

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Potato graders at Bula's Hearland Potato Farms n Benton sort out potatoes.
BENTON -- So long as the equipment can move in the sandy soil which is ideal for potato growing, its just another day in the fields, rain or shine.

"Sometimes we have to work in the rain to get the semi loads out," said Linda Bula, co-owner of Bula's Heartland Potato Farm in Benton.

Gregg Halverson, owner of Black Gold Potato Farms in Charleston, agreed. "We sent out over 40 semis (Monday) in the rain," he said. "We're very customer-oriented -- we have to produce all of the orders we get for a given day."

Although the seed is planted in March, that is far from the beginning of the potato growing process.

"It all starts with the potato contract -- a grower and purchaser getting together on pricing and volume," Halverson said, adding that nearly all potatoes are planted under a contract.

Potatoes planted at Heartland Potatoes are contracted in three ways. The bulk of the crop goes to chip plants in states including North Carolina, Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Colorado, Minnesota and Kansas.

Other potatoes are used for process growers, Bula said, and diced to make foods like potato salad and mashed potatoes customers can find in stores and some restaurants.

And a small amount are sold to the table market -- raw potatoes that are boxed for restaurants or bagged for stores. "We do very little of that, but we do some," Bula said.

Black Gold Potato, which has 11 farms in nine states, sells potatoes to both chip plants and for processing, but all of those grown in Charleston eventually become potato chips, Halverson said.

"We sell to literally every chip manufacturer east of the Rocky Mountains," he said, adding there is an "excellent chance" Southeast Missouri residents are eating locally grown potatoes in their potato chips.

Workers are busy around the clock to fill all the orders. Halverson said the biggest shipment from the Charleston farm was almost 70 semitrucks in one day, while Bula said their biggest load was about 25 in one day.

Both plants begin grading, or picking out the bad potatoes, at 7 a.m. and work until the job is finished.

Bula said Heartland Potato tries to shut down operations by 6 p.m., but it is sometimes after 10, depending on orders for the day. At Black Gold Potato, grading sometimes extends past midnight, Halverson said.

Both take on extra staff during the harvest season, which begins in mid-June and typically wraps up by the end of July. Halverson said that Black Gold Potato hires all local workers, while Heartland Potato's crew is half local and half families of people who come from Texas.

But potato farming isn't just about contracts, planting and harvesting. There is a lot to be done before planting and again once the seeds are in the ground.

Seed potatoes are bought and cut in February, Bula said. The cuts will depend on the number of eyes on a potato. "You need at least an eye or more on each seed piece to grow it," she said.

The seed potatoes bought are tested to be sure there aren't any diseases or other problems then certified.

Once the seeds are in the ground, work includes irrigating and fertilizing until harvesting, Bula and Halverson agreed.

"We take tissue tests, picking parts of the plant each week to figure out what type and amount of fertilizer to put on," Halverson said.

Irrigation is another important aspect, but easier to supply in Southeast Missouri than some other areas, he added. "There is plenty of water," Halverson said. "Not every part of the country has that natural element you need."

And then there are some factors growers can't control, including frost, disease and weeds.

Luckily, those weren't a factor this season. "We have a beautiful crop this year," Halverson said. "We had very good growing conditions and more than normal natural rain."