Potato Farming - Wisconsin

In October, I drove around Portage County and found a potato harvest at a sizeable commercial potato farming operation near plover and Stevens Point. I’ll show some photos of the harvest and comment on them later—first, a bit about potato farming.

Potato is a common food. It is so common one might underestimate the complexity of commercial production. The Potato Association of America describes it this way:

“Commercial potato production is a complex, specialized commercial enterprise that requires a high degree of technical skill and practical experience on the part of the producer.”

Commercial potato production also requires a great deal of specialized equipment. The Potato Association of America hits the nail on the head on this point:

“Potatoes are an expensive crop to grow. In addition to a significant expenditure for variable inputs—seed, fertilizer, pesticides, labor, electricity and fuel—potato production requires a large investment in

expensive, specialized machinery. “

I watched a harvest and can attest to the amount of machinery employed. Now that I have investigated the machinery used to plant potatoes, I can see the expenses are also significant for that.

Wisconsin is the number three potato producer in the nation, behind Idaho and Washington. It is number one east of the Mississippi River.

Production is measured by “hundredweight,” or CWT. The CWT is a unit of measurement to define the number of potatoes and other commodities. For our purposes, a CWT equals 100 lbs. In Britain, it equals 112 lbs.

Wisconsin potato production in 2020 totaled 28.8 million cwt. I believe that works out to be about 2.88 billion pounds. That’s a lot of potatoes!

Farmers are growing more potatoes on fewer acres of land thanks to improved technology, research, and enhanced farmer skills.

Farmers need better yields because the number of potato products today has grown. The market is no longer just buying a few potatoes for dinner. Processing operations today manufacture a wide variety of potato chip, frozen, and dehydrated products. That has offset a decline in the consumption of fresh potatoes. Frozen products have accounted for most of that growth.

In Wisconsin, the 2020 production of 28.8 million CWT reflects a 70,000 CWT increase from 2019. Yield per acre has risen. The Wisconsin potato crop in 2020 was valued at $351 million.

Portage County in central Wisconsin leads the state in potato production. This county is in the Central Plains Geographic Province of the state and an area referred to as the Central Sands area. 

This map provided by the Department of Natural resources (DNR) shows the Central Sands area. The DNR says,

“The Central Wisconsin Sand and Gravel Aquifer are a contiguous area east of the Wisconsin River with sand and gravel surficial deposits greater than 50 feet deep.”

The Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) says,

“The Central Sands area lies east of the Wisconsin River and encompasses 1.75 million acres in parts of Adams, Marathon, Marquette, Portage, Shawano, Waupaca, Waushara, and Wood counties. The area is defined by the Central Wisconsin Sand and Gravel Aquifer, deposits of sand and gravel left by melting glaciers at the end of the last ice age. The sand and gravel deposits form an aquifer that can store or transmit water underground.”

This Central Wisconsin Sand and Gravel Aquifer (Nr 1 on the map provided by MDPI) hosts one of the largest groundwater reserves in the world. Almost all of Portage and Waushara Counties lie on this aquifer. MDPI says:

“The State of Wisconsin is located in an unusually water-rich portion of the world in the western part of the Great Lakes region of North America.”

MDPI notes this, however, on the map for Area Nr 2): “Groundwater deficient portion of north-central Wisconsin

Farmers must carefully manage the groundwater in this aquifer. The WPVGA, DNR, and the University of Wisconsin (UW) are all working together to stay on top of groundwater levels. One way of doing that is to observe lake levels closely.

In 2006 I happened on a potato harvest in Portage County, near the town of Plover and the city of Stevens Point. Watching the harvest was fun for me. I was impressed by what I call the “choreography of harvesting potatoes.”

I regret I did not observe the potato planting. Wysocki Farms Inc. of Bancroft, Wisconsin, describes the planting as “Our first love.”

The Wysocki Farms  employ precision planting technologies≥ These technologies “can track the exact placement of every seed.” That enables them to ensure the “plants get exactly what they need,” most notably nutrients and water.

The planting season starts in spring, once the danger of killing frost has passed; in the neighborhood of April, One of the first steps is to turn, plow or harrow the soil in the field to prepare it for planting. The ground is rounded up into hills or ridges, with trenches or furrows on either side. Quite often, a “destoner” machine is employed to find the stones and drop them between the ridges. Fertilizers are also applied.

“Seed potatoes” are used to plant crops. Seed potatoes are small and have sprouts breaking through their skin. Frequently the farmer will save smaller potatoes from the previous year’s harvest to use as seed potatoes. If I forget I even have potatoes in the house, I often find they have morphed into great seed potatoes!

They are usually loaded into a bin on top of the plowing and hilling or ridging mechanism. The tractor pulls this equipment through a field, cuts slits in the furrow, drops the potato seed into the slit, and covers the seed. Wysocki has used Spudnik equipment. This photo shows a Spudnik seven-row bed planter. Spudnik manufactures five-row up to 10-row planters.

The planting equipment can plant from one row up to twelve or even more, depending on the equipment used. The potato seed is actually in the trench or furrow. The trenches are left on either side. MDPI has said,

“ MDPI has labeled potato planting as “the most important component of potato production … Seed potato separation is one of the critical technologies of mechanized potato planting. It mainly refers to when seed potatoes stacked disorderly in the seed box are formed into a single seed potato through the function of the seed metering device …

“intelligent seeding technology fully utilized the advances in sensor, artificial intelligence, and electrical driving technology. Intelligent seeding technology requires the planter to meet the three conditions of precise seeding rate, spacing, and seeding depth to sow the seed potato to the desired depth accurately.”

The moral of the story with potato planting is technology reigns supreme.

Let’s switch gears and look at the harvest. I watched a harvest on the  Plover Potato farms Alliance Farms Inc., of Stevens Point. They have a 3,500-acre potato and vegetable farm and about $1.5 million in sales. It has been operating for more than 50 years. Nick Somers, the president, was inducted into the WPVGA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Watching a potato harvest was new to me. As a former Air Force officer, I was impressed by the choreography. Machine equipment, trucks, and people lined up and ready to do their thing. This is what I saw.

They used a Double L 851 vegetable harvester, also known as a windrow. An International Harvester Tractor pulled it along the field, which to the naked eye appeared to be dried-out vegetation, probably the remnants of the dying leaves of the potato plants.  Before going further, take a close look at the photo. The 851 Windrower is lined up and hooked up to a tractor. Then note the big green machine upper left in the picture, behind the 851. That is a Lenco Harvester. Then note three potato trucks lined up center top of the photo. This is the lineup for the harvest choreography. It was magic to watch.

First in line is the 851. You see the tractor pull it along the ground. Let’s take a closer look at this machine.

The 851 Windrower does a lot of work. It is the first machine to pass over the potato crop during harvest. It digs up the soil, sucks up the weeds and potato vines, picks out the potatoes that grow below the ground, and shoots them out the side to open furrows.

The Thomson Potato Farm’s “The Common-Tater” website says,

“It is a digging machine that piles up potatoes for the harvester. As it digs the potatoes, any weeds, rocks, and large clumps of soil are moved by a large belt behind the machine where they are not in the way of the harvester. The windrower also cleans some of the dirt off the potatoes.”

The net effect is the potatoes have now been dug up and laid out on the ground for the Lenco harvester.

The Lenco harvester follows in trail formation. He does not go out there alone, however. A potato truck follows it out there.

The harvester picks up the potatoes lying in line on the ground and shoots them into the truck's bed. The truck has to follow a tad to the rear.

Another potato truck trailing these two is not shown in this photo. Once the truck driving next to the harvester is full, he pulls away, and another truck rushes up to replace him. This has to be well timed as the harvester does not stop, and the farmers do not want to lose any potatoes!

A few potatoes are left on the ground after these guys are finished. I took a photo of the “taters” ket behind. I wanted to pick up a few to take home, but I hesitated, fearing I would be nicked for stealing potatoes!

The harvest is not done yet, however. The potato trucks working for potato farms Alliance Farms Inc. hauled the potatoes to a large building. While I was there, a man and a lady were there to receive the potatoes, pick through them, pulling out the undesirables.

The potatoes were then sent up into the building for storage. They will be picked up later and taken to their next destinations.