Potato farming has good potential for profitability in the long-term

Potato farming has good potential for profitability in the long-term

Despite not being mentioned in the Bible, (the reason why Scots declined to eat them back in the day), it’s quite impossible to picture a world without potatoes. The potato is, in fact, the world’s 4th most important food crop, after maize, wheat and rice.

Lots of potatoes are eaten around the world daily. The Irish consider potatoes as their staple food.

Potatoes are the world's fourth most important food crop

Potatoes are the world’s fourth most important food crop

The average American eats 137.9 lbs of potatoes annually as follows:

  • 7 lbs fresh potatoes
  • 3 lbs frozen potatoes e.g. French fries and hash browns
  • 9 lbs potato chips
  • 13 lbs dehydrated potato e.g. mashed potato flakes, au gratin mixes, etc
  • 2 lbs of canned potatoes

From a nutritional perspective, the potato is one of the healthiest food crops around. A medium-sized potato offers a measly 110 calories, and has zero amounts of cholesterol, sodium and fat. Potatoes are nevertheless rich in iron, vitamin B6, fiber, vitamin C and potassium.

Oh! Lest I forget, French Fries were first served to America in 1801.

French fries are hugely popular around the world

French fries are hugely popular around the world

Total U.S. potato production in 2014 was approximately 447 million cwt from a harvested area of 1.05 million acres, valued at an estimated $3.5-4.0 billion. Average yield was approximated at 426 cwt per acre.

Frozen French fries are the country’s top potato product export.

In 2012, Idaho, Washington, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Oregon, respectively, produced the highest volumes of potatoes.

Now you know a couple of facts and figures about the potato. How about finding out what running a potato farming small business involves?

1. Choosing an appropriate site

Your site should receive full sun and have good quality soil

Your site should receive full sun and have good quality soil

It is advisable to grow potatoes in an open position that receives full sun. Your site can be slightly sloping, south-facing and sheltered from winds. It is preferable to have a source of water nearby to facilitate irrigation if and when this is required.

For the best results the soil should be deep to moderately deep, loose and well-drained, with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5. Potatoes are capable of doing well in a variety of soil types although a slightly acidic soil is preferable. Soil testing will help you to find out what your crop’s lime and fertilizer requirements will be.

For alkaline soils you’ll need to apply sulfur on top of the potato ridge after planting. This will help to promote yields and discourage skin flaws like Common Scab.

To reduce the risk of disease you should choose a site where the crop has not been grown for two years in succession. Correct crop rotation should therefore be done to prevent the accumulation of disease, potato cyst eelworm and volunteer potatoes.

It is worth noting that potato cyst nematode (eelworm) can survive in soil for 20-30 years. Additionally, the elimination of volunteer potatoes is a most vital way of effectively combating the eelworm menace, as well as blight and virus disease.

2. The required machinery and equipment

You'll need to invest in various farming machinery and equipment

You’ll need to invest in various farming machinery and equipment

You should consider investing in the following:

  • Tractor (around 45 kW)
  • Solid set irrigation equipment/ha
  • Planter/fertilizer applicator
  • Fertilizer equipment (spreader)
  • Spray equipment
  • Cultivation equipment/hiller
  • Tipping device fitted to tractor
  • Shed forklift
  • Digger/harvester (single row)
  • Digger/harvester (double row)
  • Scales
  • Bag sewing machine
  • Half ton bins
  • Grader

3. Preparing the soil for planting

Preparing the planting site well will help to optimize crop yield

Preparing the planting site well will help to optimize crop yield

You should do soil preparation well in advance to ensure that the soil will have settled nicely before planting time. Preparation basically involves weed removal, removal of heavy stones, and introducing well decomposed organic matter and high potash fertilizer into the soil.

Thorough site preparation will ensure proper early stage growth

Thorough site preparation will ensure proper early stage growth

Your objective in soil preparation should be to create a fine seedbed, free of clods to a depth of about 12-15cm. It is best to cultivate suitably dry soils to prevent compaction and soil structure damage, two causes of poor plant rooting capacity, and which in turn causes low crop yield.

Read more about soil preparation here.

4. Choosing the varieties of potatoes to plant

Choose a potato variety that grows well and has good market demand

Choose a potato variety that grows well and has good market demand

There are many different varieties of potato that you can plant. In the northeastern United States some of these varieties include Superior, Eva, Katahdin, Envol, Lehigh and Reba. In Ireland the most popular variety is Rooster which is renowned for having very desirable agronomic traits. This potato type also cooks very well and has an excellent taste.

In selecting a suitable variety of potato you should consider the following factors:

  • Yield – you want high yields in order to make good profits
  • Eating quality – the variety you go for must conform with consumer preferences
  • Maturity – it’s advisable to plant varieties which mature in succession
  • Keeping quality – some varieties are suitable for prolonged storage but some aren’t
  • Disease resistance – this varies among the different varieties of potato

Read more about potato varieties here and here.

5. Issues about seed potatoes that you should consider

Using certified seed or seed free of virus diseases is most advisable. Over winter you will need to store your seeds in a refrigerated storage at 4°C to prevent over-sprouting. Excessive sprouting and sprout breakage result from poor storage and consequently result in poor crop vigor, irregular germination, and a wide range of stem numbers.

Chitting of seed potatoes is highly advisable as a means of encouraging the sprouting of strong shoots over several weeks. This will ensure that once planted, growth will be faster and the crop heavier. Chitting also encourages early maturity and helps to lengthen the harvest window. Learn about how to “chit” seed potatoes here.

6. Requirements for potato planting

A good planting technique will facilitate all subsequent aspects of crop management

A good planting technique will facilitate all subsequent aspects of crop management

The factors which influence potato planting time include weather, soil conditions and regional variations.

Timing: It is best to plant potatoes when the soil temperature is around 7°C; the soil should not be cold and wet. You’ll also want to plant when the threat of frost damage is minimal.

Planting depth: You should maintain a uniform depth of about 12-15 cm below the ridge surface, and 4 cm above the furrow base to protect the seeds in wet conditions. Depth also depends on seed size and potato variety.

Seeding rate: You should determine a suitable seeding rate that will both result in cost-effectiveness and a suitable size of potato tuber as per market requirements.

Spacing: You should space your seeds in intervals of about 7-12 inches. Spacing requirements are influenced by: potato variety, soil type, soil moisture available, soil fertility and amount of fertilizer applied, and desired potato harvest size (potato size increases with more spacing).

Setting your ridge widths at 80 cm and row widths at 90 cm should be feasible. Having wide rows will:

  • provide you with enough soil to make good ridges
  • reduce the incidence of the ridge sides being compacted by tractor tires, thereby reducing clod formation and subsequent greening of tubers
  • enable you to work faster

Drip irrigation: This is preferred over other irrigation techniques as it effectively manages all aspects of moisture application. You can therefore also use it to apply nutrients in precise amounts.

Two potato planting rules of thumb:

  • optimal seed rate and spacing vary greatly; they depend on required tuber size, variety, growth conditions, and seed cost
  • to increase tuber numbers and reduce tuber size you need to increase seeding rate with larger seed and/or closer spacing
  • when applying fertilizer at planting time, place it approximately 10 cm away from the tuber to prevent scorching

Read more about potato planting here, here and here.

7. Fertilizer application

You will need to apply sufficient quantities of Nitrogen (N), Potassium (K) and Phosphates (P) to achieve optimal crop yields, tuber size and quality. Conducting a soil test will enable you to determine the correct amounts of fertilizer to be applied. The recommended nutrient application for maincrop potatoes is as follows:

Nutrient Low (Kg/ha) High
Nitrogen 95-170
Phosphate 50-125
Potash 120-305

In case you decide to use organic manures, you will need to proportionately reduce the amounts of fertilizer applied based on the manure’s nutrient value. Read more about fertilizer application here and here.

8. Controlling weeds, pests and diseases

The Colorado potato beetle is one of the pests you must look out for

The Colorado potato beetle is one of the pests you must look out for

  • Weed control – You will need to eliminate weeds to ensure that your crop isn’t deprived of water, nutrients and light. Practical research has shown that failure to remove weeds reduces crop yield by 50% or more. Application of herbicides and mechanical weeding are the two most effective options for weed control. Crop rotation and application of plastic mulch will also be helpful in weed management.
  • Pest control – You’ll need to eradicate pests that can wreak havoc on your crop. Four pests are particularly notorious i.e. wireworms, slugs, aphids and eelworms. Others include Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, leafhoppers and corn borers.
  • Disease control – Diseases you need to be on the lookout for include potato blight (early blight and late blight), black scurf (stem canker), blackleg and bacterial soft rot, common and powdery scab, fusarium dry rot, verticilium wilt, rhizoctonia, and leaf roll and mosaic viruses.

Read more about caring for your potato crop here and here.

9. Harvesting potatoes

Harvesting typically begins with the removal of potato haulms

Harvesting typically begins with the removal of potato haulms

When harvesting your crop the objective is to do it with minimal damage to the tubers before storage. To determine the correct time for harvesting you will need to consider the growing season, weather conditions, and the size of tuber required (the longer the growing period the larger tubers become).

Harvesting begins with the burning off or desiccation of the foliage (haulms). You will especially need to do this if your crop will be going into storage; crops lifted with immature or blighted foliage carry a high probability of rotting in storage. If you’ll be selling the crop immediately, however, burning off won’t be really critical.

Haulms removal won't be necessary if the potatoes will be going to the market immediately

Haulms removal won’t be necessary if the potatoes will be going to the market immediately

Burning off refers to the removal of potato foliage and stalks; desiccation achieves the same thing via the application of a special agrochemical. After applying the desiccant you’ll need to wait for 2-3 weeks before you can start harvesting.

This waiting period will allow the tuber skins to mature thereby reducing the probability of damage and disease at harvest and in storage. Harvesting should also be done when the soils are relatively warm; cold wet soils will lead to an increased incidence of diseased and rotten tubers.

Read more about potato harvesting here.

10. Potato storage

After harvesting you should carefully transfer the potatoes to a suitable storage space

After harvesting you should carefully transfer the potatoes to a suitable storage space

You should see to it that proper storage is done, more so in the first 14 days, as this will facilitate the effective healing of cuts and bruises on the potatoes.

The ideal storage conditions are as follows:

  • Sufficient air movement, an average temperature of 65°F, and high relative humidity (85%-90%) during the initial phase of storage. These conditions will allow for the proper drying and curing of potato skins.
  • Temperature reduction at the rate of one degree per day until the final storage temperature of 38°F to 40°F is attained. The potatoes can be stored in paper or hessian sacks but not in polythene bags as this will lead to the “sweating” and rotting of potatoes
  • Relative humidity should be maintained at 85% to help prevent shrinkage and pressure bruising, and to enable the potatoes to retain their firmness
The best sacks are those that allow potatoes to be aerated

The best sacks are those that allow potatoes to be aerated

It is advisable to store large quantities of potatoes in plastic bulk containers rather than wooden ones; plastic containers are much easier to clean.

Read more about potato storage here and here.

11. Factors that will influence your business’ success

Starting a potato farming business will require you to face and deal with multiple factors and risks which make growing the crop reasonably difficult. You’ll need to ponder about the following:

  • Availability of good quality potato seed – which is very expensive
  • Disease vulnerability as well as infection of the crop by fungi and viruses from other crop fields nearby. Controlling disease can be costly.
  • Fertilizer costs – these are quite significant
  • If you are thinking about growing seed potatoes you’ll have to adhere to strict health, quality and varietal purity requirements
  • The high cost of investing in machinery and equipment required for potato production
  • Market price fluctuations – thereby making this a business where profitability is determined over the long-term
  • Marketing opportunity challenges especially where you have to compete against large production areas
  • The perishable nature of potatoes – you can only store them for about 10 months
  • The need to gradually increase the size of your operation in order to increase the return on investment
  • The need to constantly learn how to make your potato production better

Learn more about what it will take to make your potato farming business a success here, here and here.

References:

http://extension.psu.edu/business/ag-alternatives/horticulture/vegetables/potato-production

http://www.thompson-morgan.com/how-to-grow-potatoes-in-the-ground

http://www.conservation.org/global/ci_south_africa/publications/Documents/potato-fact-sheet.pdf

http://www.teagasc.ie/publications/2013/2844/GrowingPotato.pdf

http://www.nationalpotatocouncil.org/potato-facts/

https://www.daf.qld.gov.au/plants/fruit-and-vegetables/vegetables/potatoes/farm-requirements-potatoes

http://www.thebusinessfarmer.com/V2_news_articles.php?heading=0&story_id=166&page=72

http://www.bdo.ca/en/Library/Industries/agriculture/pages/Bucks-In-The-Ground-The-Cost-To-Grow-An-Acre-Of-Potatoes.aspx

http://www.farmersweekly.co.za/article.aspx?id=24441&h=Starting-off-with-potatoes

http://www.potatogoodness.com/nutrition/nutritional-facts/

http://www.littlepotatoes.com/potatoes101/fun-facts.php

http://www.umich.edu/~elements/5e/web_mod/potato/fact.htm

http://www.potato.ie/key-facts/

http://www.usda.gov/nass/PUBS/TODAYRPT/cropan15.pdf

http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/vegetables-pulses/potatoes.aspx

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