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Potato grower shares her odyssey

By Staff | Feb 6, 2014

LAURA KROUSE, who operates Abbe Hills Farm, visits about how she raises potatoes, following her presentation at the Practical Famers of Iowa annual conference held in Ames at Iowa State University.




AMES – Laura Krouse contends that “potatoes are looking for a way to die. It’s your job to get them grown before they get that accomplished.”

Producers who want to keep spuds alive and flourishing had an opportunity to hear Krouse’s suggestions during a Potatoes 101 workshop on Jan. 25 at the Practical Farmers of Iowa annual conference at Iowa State University.

Krouse operates Abbe Hills Farm, a CSA near Mt. Vernon in eastern Iowa that supports about 200 families. She detailed what she called “my potato odyssey,” explaining everything from how to purchase and store potatoes to strategies to outwit insect and diseases.

CSA is consumer supported agriculture, where a grower contracts with customers, growing fresh fruit and vegetables and delivering them when in season.

Her farm is only 72 acres, and “surrounding me, nobody farms less than 6,000 acres. So I’m a tiny little mosquito in a sea of big farmers, who are good neighbors, by the way,” Krouse said.

Ten to 12 acres are planted in garden, with a rotation that usually consists of garden in the first year, corn in the second year, then it’s seeded down to oats and hay in the third year. It’s left in oats or meadow for a year or two after that, she said. Then, it gets turned over and turned back into garden again.

“I do that for nitrogen fixation, I do that for pest suppression and I do it for weeds,” Krouse said. “It’s not certified organic although I try to use, as much as possible, organic practices,” including cover crops and compost along with trying to use only certified-organic insecticides.

Abbe Hills does use conventional starter fertilizer, Krouse said, and they purchase conventional and organic seed.

They usually begin getting potatoes about the week of the Fourth of July, she said, and they continue to harvest potatoes until around Halloween, when the CSA wraps up for the year.

Abbe Hills aims to produce about three pounds of potatoes a week, since it is producing potatoes for the CSA’s members.

“I try to give them as much as they will eat in a week because my goal is not to put food in their freezer. My CSA is to give them food they will eat for a week,” she said.

For years, Krouse said, she wasn’t getting the yield she wanted, and she thought it must be due to not getting high quality seed. So, she starting making phone calls “from Des Moines to the Mississippi River” and discovered that all the suppliers had exactly the same varieties that came from the same broker in Minnesota.

She discovered that Wisconsin had a vibrant seed potato industry.

“What I was able to get was different varieties, more varieties, they’re certified disease-free. It’s not that far away from where I live, so I am able to drive from my house near Cedar Rapids to northern Wisconsin in about five hours. They are a good price; they’re very reasonable, and best of all, they are pre-sized so they don’t have to be cut.”

Some states have a program to certify potatoes as disease free. Wisconsin is among those states; Iowa is not, she said. In fact, she said, Wisconsin has the most stringent rules of any state regarding certification.

It is also possible to purchase certified-organic seed potatoes, she said, but potatoes can have both, one or neither of the certifications.

Among Krouse’ suggestions for potato-growing success:

A). “You don’t want to store seed potatoes,” she said. “You want to get your potatoes just when you need them. Because the people who’ve had them before you … on the farm or the broker … had optimal storage conditions. They know what they’re doing; they can keep them at 38 degrees, 95 percent humidity in the dark, and you probably can’t.” Coolness and darkness keep the potatoes dormant and stop the aging process.

B). If seed potatoes aren’t sized, they should be cut small enough to go through a planter, but large enough to grow into a vigorous plant, she said. “Pieces can be remarkably small,” Krouse said. “You should shoot for about 2 ounces a piece, but you do have to make sure there is an eye, at least one, on every piece.” Smaller pieces yield fewer, but larger potatoes, she said.

C). If you are cutting pieces of seed potato, they should be allowed to warm a bit and heal the cut surface for a few days before planting. Warming tells the nodes it’s time to start to growing, Krouse said. And it doesn’t matter, she said, whether the cut side is planted upward or downward.

D). Too much nitrogren will grow more tops than tubers. Krouse uses a dry, granular 6-24-24 fertilizer. which is corn starter.

E). Potatoes should not be planted until the soil temperature is greater than 40 degrees.

F). Potatoes hate weeds; weeds cut into yield up to 90 percent.

G). “Potatoes have to be hilled,” she said. ‘Potatoes only grow above the seed piece. So, you planted that thing 4 inches in the ground, 5 inches in the ground. Now, all the things you want to eat will only grow above that. Certain kinds, like Kennebecs will pop right up out of the ground.” If light gets on the potato while in the ground or in storage, it will begin to manufacture chlorophyll as well as toxic compounds.

H). Among the chief pests are Colorado potato beetle and potato leafhopper.

I). Tops among the diseases are common scab, black scurf and late blight, although the latter is not found in Iowa and was the chief cause of the Irish potato famine.

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