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Commissions dig Northwest potatoes

Potato production is ramping up in Washington. "The first fresh potatoes are being harvested, Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, told The Produce News July 26. "They look really beautiful. Russets started today."

According to Bill Brewer, executive director of the Oregon Potato Commission, the state's producers have 41,000 acres in production this season. "Fresh table stock is approximately 15 percent of the total," he told The Produce News July 30.

CropOverviewThe potato harvest has already begun in Washington, and officials in Oregon expect their season to begin in mid-August. (Photo courtesy of the Washington State Potato Commission) The majority of Oregon's fresh potatoes are comprised of russets, with reds, yellows and specialty potatoes accounting for approximately 4 percent. "The weather has been really good for potato production," Mr. Brewer said. "We expect a very high quality crop this year. I expect the new season potatoes to begin in three weeks or so."

Mr. Voigt said weather in Washington was a wildcard this season. "It was abnormally cool [during the spring]." With temperatures from February through the first part of May trending below normal, Mr. Voigt said the crop got a late start. From mid-May to the end of June, he described conditions as "perfect."

Then the other shoe fell. "In July, it got hot. The plants just shut down," he said. But things began to moderate toward the end of the month. "Now it's normal hot," he laughed.

Land planted to potatoes increased to 165,000 acres this season, but Mr. Voigt said the 5,000 additional acres were all for process. As a result, acreage for fresh production remained unchanged from 2011. In all, fresh accounts for 13 percent of potato volume in the Evergreen State.

Despite fluctuating conditions during production, Mr. Voigt said pest pressures were marginal. One of the newest to emerge in the United States is the Zebra Chip pathogen, which causes internal striping in potatoes. Zebra Chip was first observed in Texas in 2000, and officials in Washington have been monitoring the presence of psyllids, the suspected host of the pathogen. "The good news is it hasn't reared its ugly head," Mr. Voigt stated. The psyllids are being monitored with yellow sticky traps. "There is no late blight in our state," he added.

Overall, Mr. Voigt said he expects an average potato season. "We're pretty much consistent in both yield and quality," he commented.

On other fronts, Mr. Voigt said, stakeholders banded together to tackle the problem of dry wells in the Odessa Aquifer. Approximately six years ago, the Columbia River Bill addressed water-supply issues in Washington with a stated purpose of developing water resources.

The plan is to take the existing irrigation canal in the Odessa Subarea and enlarge it at a cost of $75 million. A series of lateral pipes will then be laid so water can flow to farmland where wells are going dry. The cost for piping is $700 million. Mr. Voigt said the Bureau of Reclamation of the U.S. Department of the Interior and state government in Washington will share the cost of enlarging the canal. Growers will issue bonds for the $700 million for the lateral piping to be paid back over a period of 50 years. Mr. Voigt said local improvement districts are being created as taxing entities to move the project along.

"The growers can start the projects and don't have to wait on bonds," he commented.

The project has evolved over the past decade, and a five-year study was conducted to address needs and concerns. "What we've learned is that if we can meet our goals, we can come together and wear a unified hat," Mr. Voigt said. "We've got a good fix. We've been very proactive."

The environmental impact statement should be issued in September, and a record of decision is expected to follow several months later. If the process flows smoothly, the widening project could begin in July 2013.