Holyoke in the thick of harvesting 72 million pounds of potatoes
Many are aware to be watching for sugar beet trucks this time of year, but another major ground crop is often overlooked — potatoes.
Potato production in the four-county area of Phillips and Yuma counties in Colorado and Dundy and Chase counties in Nebraska actually rivals that of sugar beets, according to Rod Lenz, potato operations manager at Lenz Family Farms. Now in the thick of harvest, semiload after semiload of potatoes are leaving area farms every day, bound for Texas, California, Canada, Massachusetts and Florida, to name a few.
At Lenz Family Farms, where they also raise corn, wheat, beans and cattle as well as potatoes, faith and family are the emphasis. “We work together, we pray together — we don’t always have time to play together,” laughed Lenz.
The farm has been in existence since the ’70s, beginning with Lenz’s parents, and is now an eight-partner corporation, four of those partners being second-generation and the other four third-generation.
Brian Meisner, one of four third-generation partners at Lenz Family Farms, concentrates on the rows ahead as he picks up dug potatoes.
Conchita Quintana sorts potatoes by hand before they go into storage at Lenz Farms. Quintana and her husband Ernesto have been traveling up from Mexico for almost 40 years to help with the Lenz potato harvest.
Their potatoes are yellow-fleshed table potatoes, mostly Yukon Gold, which are either shipped out dry bulk all over the country, put into storage sheds, or packaged onsite and sold locally.
“We do all our sales inhouse,” said Lenz. “It’s important to get feedback,” he added, noting that he likes getting to see the packaged product on the shelves himself to judge their quality.
While the farm normally has eight full-time employees in addition to the eight working partners, the two-month potato harvest sees as many as 32 employees on the property in order to accomplish the variety of tasks. Many of the seasonal employees are regulars, like Ernesto and Conchita Quintana who have traveled from Mexico to help out for almost 40 years.
It begins in the field, where potatoes are dug, windrowed and run across a series of chains on the digger before being loaded onto trucks. A 3 a.m. start to the day is typical for this process, as digging stops when the spuds reach an internal temperature of 65-70 degrees, depending on the farm.
Once back at the farm, potatoes that are shipped dry bulk to places all over the country are sorted by hand and examined by a USDA inspector before being loaded onto trucks by conveyor.
Other potatoes go to the wash shed for packaging and local selling. They are washed in chlorinated water, sorted, graded and even X-rayed for internal damage, and then finally rinsed in a bactericide before being packaged for consumers. “We typically run 2,200 sacks through the wash shed on a given day,” estimated Lenz.
The rest of the potatoes are put into storage to sell through the winter months, sorted for quality on conveyor belts before filling the massive shed. It takes about five days to fill a shed, where the potatoes must be cooled to 55 degrees overnight and to 45 degrees over the next month and kept at 98 percent humidity.
However, even during harvest, the labor-intensive family operation comes to a halt on Sundays. “That’s a cardinal rule,” said Lenz. “If the diggers choose to be in the field because a storm is coming, that’s one thing, but otherwise we don’t work on Sundays.”
Monte Cleghorn with the Colorado Department of Agriculture inspects potatoes being loaded for dry bulk at Lenz Farms. Cleghorn is one of many USDA inspectors who travel for a month at a time to inspect potatoes in areas all across the state.
Potatoes are run across a series of chains on the digger, separating them from dirt clods and vines. Local potato farms are in the thick of harvest right now, which runs from mid-August to early October.
Western Potatoes Inc., located just outside of Holyoke, has a different family history. Steve Moore has been with the local farm since 1991, but his father was the general manager at the main Western Potatoes office in Alliance, Neb., until his retirement in 1999.
Claiming four different branches in Alliance, Neb., Gordon, Neb., Garden City, Kan., and Holyoke, the vast majority of the employee-owned operation’s product is contracted with Frito-Lay. This means that unlike Lenz Family Farms, Western Potatoes grows chipping potatoes, and according to Moore, it’s a whole other ballgame.
“Our varieties are round white,” said Moore, rather than the yellow-fleshed table potatoes. The varieties are Frito-Lay specific, continuously developed at a research plant in Wisconsin.
When Moore began in 1991, the major variety numbers included 795 and 1291. Today, Western Potatoes’ varieties number as 2126 and 2137, although some Frito-Lay spuds number in even the 2300s and 2400s.
“The 2137s can be stored until June if conditions are optimal,” said Moore of some of the new hybrid advantages. “Every year is something different.”
Because their potatoes are meant for chips, less processing happens on-site at Western Potatoes compared to Lenz Family Farms. Coming from the field, the potatoes are either stored in sheds directly or washed with a brush washer, sorted by hand and loaded on semis bound for various Frito-Lay plants. They also raise an additional potato variety for the Condor Snack Company in Denver.
Western Potatoes is in full operation every day of the week, as Frito-Lay only shuts down for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Both Lenz Family Farms and Western Potatoes Inc. have similar harvest times, from mid-August to early October, and report fairly average crops this year.
By the end of harvest, the two area farms will have produced a combined yield of nearly 72 million pounds of potatoes — an impressive representation from this area that gets overshadowed by other crops all too often.
Holyoke Enterprise October 1, 2015