Even though I work for an organization that has family roots that have been growing potatoes for over 100 years, I didn’t get into agriculture until later in life. I’ll never forget when I first became associated with the potato industry 15 years ago after having a conversation with a potato grower who was much my senior. He told me that raising potatoes isn’t that big of a deal. You put some seed in the ground, put a little sunlight on them, give them a little water and fertilizer and they do the rest on their own. What I’ve found out is that may well be the biggest understatement since astronaut Jim Lovell told Houston he had a problem.
The fact of the matter is farming has become incredibly high tech. Virtually all aspects of production have been studied and influenced by scientific study. Through the growers’ association, studies have been conducted on everything from the efficacy of new chemistry to control pests, to the limitations of pest movements to better give us an idea how to limit the total pest pressure in an area through crop rotation. We’ve studied alternatives to fumigation, including the use of unlikely cover crops like marigolds, and by “baking” the fields by putting taps down. We’ve supported the development of models to tell when blight outbreaks are likely, which affords us the opportunity of reducing spraying for blight until the conditions support an outbreak.
Irrigation management is also an area that we have put significant resources into understanding optimum timing, evapotranspiration effects and the most efficient nozzles to use. We also use advanced weather prediction techniques to make sure we are using natural rains instead of working against us.
We’ve studied how physiological age of a seed piece will affect growing. We’ve put money into studying the genetic code of potatoes.
We’ve put resources into developing varieties. Timing of planting, timing of vine kill, timing of harvest. How to eliminate weeds. How to prevent erosion. The timing for nutrients for best results. The effects of adding calcium to a nutrient system. How to best store potatoes.
The list goes on and on. The point is this is not your father’s Oldsmobile. In order to produce a product that the consumer wants to buy and that is grown in a way that reduces inputs and is financially expedient takes more information than could be imagined. The good news is we currently know more now than we ever have about potatoes and potato production. Through the investment the industry has made in gathering and understanding all of that data about all of those aspects of production, we now know answers to questions that 50 years ago we hadn’t thought of even asking.
The question is what are the questions we’ll be asking over the next 50 years and how will that affect production? What is it that we don’t know but need to know? What will be the unforeseen issues that we need to face in the next half a century? I am confident we will continue to strive for even more knowledge, understanding and data, and I am curious to see how we can add to the already incredible amounts of data that we already have. Even more importantly, what can we do with that data once we have it?