‘Definitely not normal’: Idaho potato farmers rush to beat early freeze

Idaho potato farmers are rushing to finish harvest as an “extremely rare” freeze hits Idaho this week. But this year’s crop might be too late to save.

Travis Blacker, director of industry relations at the Idaho Potato Commission, said that an estimated 15-20 percent of Idaho’s potato crop remains in the ground. With snow falling across East Idaho and parts of the Magic Valley, some farmers will have to decide whether to finish harvesting now, or hope their potatoes will survive the several freezing nights forecast this week.

Onion growers in the Treasure Valley area are in similar straits, the Idaho State Department of Agriculture said, and growers are working overtime to finish the harvest before the freeze.

“This is not normal for this time of year,” Blacker said. “Usually we do get maybe a few nights that might hit low 30s, but nothing like mid-15s and snow. Definitely not normal.”

Harvesting during freezing temperatures can hurt the quality of the potatoes or spoil them completely, Blacker said. The rush can also lead to accidents on the farm or the road, too.

“I don’t think they’re going to have a choice, some are still harvesting right now, some are going to shut down operations and hope,” Blacker said. “They’ve been working around the clock to try to get everything in.”

Stephanie Mickelson said Mickelsen Farms in the Idaho Falls area — one of the largest potato farms in the state — barely finished harvest in the early hours of Wednesday. They’re now lending equipment and assistance to neighbors and other farmers in their area who weren’t so lucky.

“We finished at 3:30 in the morning,” Mickelsen told the Statesman on Wednesday afternoon. “When we were coming in, we could see lights across the farmland and see farmers still trying to get their crops in.”

Mickelsen, also a state director for the Idaho Farm Bureau, said some farmers in her area might be leaving half their crop in the field. Many farmers from areas such as Blackfoot, Aberdeen and American Falls are only 70% to 80% done with harvest.

And not only is a streak of below-freezing temperatures unusual this early in the year, Mickelsen said, but many Idaho potato farmers are harvesting later due to June and July frosts that delayed planting.

“The margins in farming are so narrow, it’s the last 3 to 5 percent of your crop that gets harvested that means you get enough of a margin to make land payments and principal payments,” Mickelsen said. “The last 5-10 percent is the difference between people going broke and not.”

If weather patterns hold as predicted, Mickelsen said any Idaho losses could negatively impact the national market for fresh potatoes — and next year’s potato seed crop.

“Mother nature has been a real challenge this year all across the potato industry, and across Idaho,” Mickelsen said.

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Investigative reporter Nicole Foy covers Latinos, agriculture and government accountability issues. She graduated from Biola University and previously worked for the Idaho Press and the Orange County Register. Her Hispanic affairs beat reporting won first place in the 2018 Associated Press regional awards. Ella habla español.