On the Road: Huntsinger Farm – Potato Harvesting

We met up with Kris Rutko and Jared Maurer at Huntsinger Farms to see early potatoes being harvested.
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On the Road: Huntsinger Farm – Potato Harvesting

Our first trip to Huntsinger Farms was earlier this year (May 2017) to see potatoes being planting . Huntsinger Farm Inc. is in Hegins, Pennsylvania and consists of 350 acres devoted to growing potatoes. Huntsinger’s also includes a pack house for potatoes grown at Hutsinger’s and at other farms across the U.S. and parts of Canada.

Preparing potatoes for harvest begins a few weeks before they are actually dug. Kris digs and inspects a 10-foot-long sample of potatoes. He weighs the potatoes and checks them for size. Based on the results of this inspection, Kris decides if they are ready to be harvested or need more time to grow. When potatoes are ready for harvesting, a desiccant and fungicide are applied to plants. The desiccant is for vine killing and the fungicide is to help prevent problems with early blight and other diseases in storage.

About a week after applying the desiccant, Kris inspects the vines. If they are still green at all, as can be the case with large vines, they receive a second application of desiccant. It is important that vines be completely killed before digging potatoes to help prevent disease issues during storage.

Desiccant was applied to this field about a week prior to our visit. The field was scheduled to receive a second application because of incomplete vine kill. Photo: Tom Butzler, Penn State

Once vines are completely killed, Kris examines the amount of plant residue remaining. When residue is high, it is chopped with a flail mower before harvesting. This is done so less plant residue needs to be removed from the potatoes during harvest.

‘Envol’, a standard early season fresh-market potato with white skin and flesh, was being harvested during our visit. Desiccant was applied in the field about a week prior and plant residue was minimal. Kris and Jared also mentioned that the rain the site received the previous evening made soil conditions good for digging.

Field being harvested. The rows on the left had just been harvested and the ones on the right will be harvested later. Note the minimal amount of vines. Photo: Elsa Sánchez, Penn State

Harvest is highly dependent on air temperature and is typically done on clear days in the morning between 6:30 and 11:30 am to avoid field heat building up. Too much field heat increases cooling costs. When air temperatures stay below about 80°F, harvest will continue after 11:30 am. On the day we visited, air temperatures were below 80°F and the harvesting crew had planned on digging potatoes until 5:00 pm. When late-season potatoes are harvested, they may be dug even when air temperatures exceed 80°F to get them out of the field before the end of the season.

The harvesting crew consists of 5 people: 3 driving tractors and 2 on the harvester. One tractor pulls the harvester: a Richard Pearson Quality Master two-row harvester using star technology to separate potatoes from debris.

Four members of the 5-member crew. Also, a full side view of the Richard Pearson Quality Master harvester. Photo: Elsa Sánchez, Penn State

Digging blades lift potatoes and soil out of the ground. Photo: Tom Butzler, Penn State

Potatoes, soil, and debris move up the main conveyor chain. Photo: Tom Butzler, Penn State

Agitators cause the conveyor chain to vibrate and soil and debris fall through the gaps. Photo: Tom Butzler, Penn State

Potatoes roll over multi-fingered rubber stars which run counter to a rotary shaft to remove debris. Photo: Elsa Sánchez, Penn State

Two people are on the harvester picking out debris that makes it way to the sorting table. The main debris we saw were pieces of vine, clods of soil that were shaped like potatoes, rocks, and original seed pieces. Debris was minimal. In fact potatoes are so clean that they are placed directly into 1000-pound-bins loaded on a trailer pulled by a second tractor. Bins are placed directly in storage until they are needed to fill orders at the pack house.

Potatoes on the sorting table. Two crew members pick out debris from freshly dug potatoes. Debris is minimal and includes seed potatoes (red arrow), clumps of soil shaped like potatoes (yellow arrow) and pieces of vines (pink arrow). Photo: Elsa Sánchez, Penn State

Baffles move potatoes up an elevator where they are dropped into bins. Photo: Tom Butzler, Penn State

Once bins are filled, they are leveled for stacking and taken to cold storage. Photo: Elsa Sánchez, Penn State

The third tractor also pulls bins and replaces the second tractor when it is full. It takes about 45 minutes to fill all the bins on a single trailer. Using three tractors allows for continuous harvest – harvest does not stop while the full bins are taken to storage. This 5-member crew can harvest 2 to 6 acres in a 6:30 to 5:00 pm day, depending on conditions. This equals about 200 100-pound-bins per day.

A second trailer (third tractor) is ready to take the place of the full trailer so that harvest is not interrupted. Photo: Tom Butzler, Penn State

Kris has a laptop in the tractor he drives and keeps track of time, number of bins, fields, etc. He also keeps track of production activities including planting and fertilizing. He uses this information to analyze how operations are going. For example, if only 6 hours are spent on harvesting during a 10.5 hour day, he makes adjustments to use time more productively.

Kris Rutko managing the potato harvest. Note the laptop in the tractor cab for tracking field operations. Photo: Tom Butzler, Penn State

After harvest, in October a cover crop of rye and timothy will be planted. Followed by Sudan grass the following year. In 2019 the field will be planted back to potatoes.

Thank you to Huntsinger Farms Inc. and especially Kris and Jared for allowing us to visit and spending time talking with us about potato harvesting.

Huntsinger Farm Inc., 211 E. Mountain Road, Heggins, PA 17938