On the Road: Huntsinger Farm – Potato Planting

Huntsinger Farm Inc. in Hegins, Pennsylvania specializes in potato production, packing, and wholesale marketing.
On the Road: Huntsinger Farm – Potato Planting - Articles

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The farm started as about 55 acres in 1921 by Elvin Huntsinger and has grown to 350 acres today. We visited with Kris Rutko, Jared Maurer and Adam Wolfgang to see potatoes being planted.

Huntsinger's developed a production system based on a 4-year rotation. The rotation works like this: in the first year potatoes are grown, once they are harvested winter rye is planted. In the spring of the second year the rye is underseeded with timothy and the rye is harvested for grain. Timothy is grown as part of the Pheasants Forever program. It's followed in the third year by sudan grass. The rotation returns to potatoes in the fourth year. In 2017 about 95 acres of potatoes were planted.

Potato planting started mid-April and finished mid-June. Field preparation begins in the fall before planting by plowing. Rye is then seeded to help prevent erosion over the winter. In the spring the rye is terminated with a herbicide. Beds about 3.5 to 4 feet across and 8 to 10 inches high are then pulled.

Three to 4 feet wide beds being made in a 60 feet wide planting strip. Photo: Bill Lamont

The soil type on the farm is red shale, meaning there are a lot of rocks in the soil. Rocks can interfere with potato quality by resulting in misshapen tubers, and also slow harvest by clogging machinery. After beds are pulled, a destoner is used. It places stones between beds in the field. This is a slow step with the tractor running at 1.5 miles per hour. In the fall rocks are chain picked. All this results in higher quality tubers.

The destoner has been used on the 3 beds on the right. Note strips of timothy on either side of the planting strip. Photo: Bill Lamont

The destoner is dropping stones between beds. Photo: Bill Lamont

Close-up of rocks exiting the destoner. Photo: Tom Butzler

Close-up of stones between beds. Photo: Bill Lamont

Next potato seed pieces are planted. Seed potatoes are prepared by cutting them into 1.5 to 2 ounce pieces, treating them with a fungicide, and storing them at 40°F for at least 2 weeks. Seed pieces are set 6 inches deep using about 8 inch in-row spacing in two rows per bed spaced 40 inches apart. Each planting strip is 60 feet wide and contains 18 rows. Strip size was chosen for efficiency to accommodate liming, spraying, irrigating, and planting. At the same time seed pieces are set and each bed is formed into 2 rows, fertilizer, insecticides and fungicides are applied.

Seed potatoes ready to be planted. Photo: Tom Butzler

During planting, beds are formed into 2 rows and fertilizer, insecticide, and fungicide is soil incorporated. Photo: Bill Lamont

Kris Rutko showing newly planted potato seed pieces spaced about 8 inches apart. Photo: Bill Lamont

Hilling is not done on the farm. Instead seed pieces are planted about 6 inches deep (compared to about 4 inches when hilling is done). Rows shrink over the growing season, but because of planting depth, tubers are kept buried and not exposed to sunlight.

Granular fertilizer is used exclusively. At planting it is placed 2 to 3 inches below seed pieces to avoid fertilizer burn. When plants are 6 to 8 inches tall, about 1 to 1.5 months after planting, additional fertilizer is side-dressed. Soil test analysis is important to monitor the fertilizer program. Soil tests are collected in September and results are used to determine lime, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium needs.

Colorado potato beetles, aphids and leaf hoppers are the main insect pests and late blight the main disease which can be present. Formal scouting occurs once a week and everyone who works in the fields is trained to keep an eye out for these problems. Kris has a network including Extension folks (He said, "I call Bill"), chemical companies, independent consultants, and internet resources to help make informed management decisions.

Weeds are managed with herbicides. After planting there is a 2 to 3 week window of time when a pre-emergent herbicide is applied. Timing during that window is dependent on the weather. When rain is predicted, an herbicide will likely be applied beforehand so the rain can move it into the soil. Irrigation is used to supply the plants 1 acre-inch of water each week. In a dry year, this means running a solid-set overhead irrigation system twice a week for about 6 hours. Soil moisture is monitored by hand.

Kris has been with Huntsinger's for over 20 years and has seen a lot of changes in potato farming. Potato quality has improved with the use of the destoner and soil health has improved with the use of the 4-year rotation system. The production system also makes use of strips and drive roads that have been planted in grass which helps with soil erosion.

Harvest will start in mid-August and generally lasts until the end of September.

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

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

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