There is also a substantial wholesale market in the Mid-Atlantic based around the increasing demand for locally-produced foodstuffs and specialty-type potatoes.
Due to the wide diversity in types and high consumer consumption, potatoes are a good enterprise option for many growers. They can be marketed directly to consumers at farm stands, farmers markets, and through other local retail outlets. There is also a substantial wholesale market in the Mid-Atlantic region based on increasing demand for locally produced foodstuffs and specialty-type potatoes. Wholesale marketers will want to explore local and regional produce auctions, grocer local-buyer programs, and direct-to-restaurant sales. The diversity of potatoes is just beginning to be realized as more and improved specialty potatoes with different skin, flesh colors, and uses are being grown and marketed. The use of different colors adds to the visual appeal of potatoes on display and can attract attention at a retail outlet.
Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) are the world's most important vegetable crop. They originated in the Andean region of South America and were first brought to Spain, where they were marketed as early as 1576. The potato was then introduced to the rest of Europe, where the Irish were the first to recognize it for its high food value. By the early 1600s potatoes became the staple food of the Irish, with the majority of the people depending on them for their existence. When late blight disease came to Ireland from America, it caused a national famine from 1845 to 1848 that resulted in the death of nearly one million people and the mass oversea migration of one million more. Late blight caused the death of the potato vines and decay of the tubers, resulting in a total loss of the crop. Late blight, although manageable, is still a challenge for growers today.
Potatoes were introduced into the United States in 1719 from stock brought from Ireland and were first grown in New Hampshire. Today, the United States produces more than 420 million hundredweight (cwt) of potatoes annually on around 1.1 million acres with an approximate value of $3.5-4.0 billion. The northeastern states combine for around 100,000 acres each year; Pennsylvania potatoes supply both the processing (primarily for potato chips) and fresh (or table-stock) markets.
Potatoes grown for the fresh market are marketed in the Northeast from mid-July through late September if not stored and from mid-September until mid-May if held in storage. Fresh-market potatoes are sold loose, in containers, and in 3- to 50-pound paper or poly bags. Another sign of change in the potato industry is in the marketing of "B" size potatoes, which were once discarded as too small or kept for seed. They are now packaged in 1.5-pound clamshells or in quart baskets as a ready-to-use product.
Three basic marketing alternatives are available to the potato grower, wholesale markets, retail markets, and processing:
- In wholesale marketing, producers negotiate price with the retail chain stores. Cooperatives, such as the Pennsylvania Co-Operative Potato Growers, market potatoes to a wide variety of outlets. Produce auctions provide another excellent outlet for new and smaller growers since all product is generally sold, but the price will vary with demand, quantity of other potatoes at the auction, quality, and type of potato.
- Local retailers (individual grocery stores) are another possibility, but you must take the time to contact produce managers and provide high-quality potatoes when the stores require them. Roadside stands (either your own or another grower's) provide opportunities to receive higher-than-wholesale prices for your potatoes, but you may have some additional expenses for advertising, building and maintaining a facility, and providing service to your customers. CSAs (community-supported agriculture) may be another option. CSAs strive to provide the greatest variety over the longest season, and potatoes are a good match for other crops such as winter squash and root crops for fall and winter sales or markets. Some growers sell to local restaurants. Because chefs stay up on trends, this may be an important avenue to sell high-end specialty potatoes that may not be recognized at other markets.
- Pennsylvania is one of the foremost potato-processing states in the country. This output is almost entirely in the form of potato chips. Although it is an important part of Pennsylvania's large food-processing industry, most of the potatoes used come from outside the state. The acreage of chipping potatoes grown in Pennsylvania is still significant but has been declining for over twenty years. Potato varieties used for chipping have been selected for their frying characteristics and are generally not very good choices for general table-stock use. Most chipping potatoes are grown by larger farming operations on a contract basis. Processors are not likely to contract with small-acreage growers.
Planting and Fertilization
Potatoes grow best in deep to moderately deep, loose, well-drained soils. The soil should have a pH of 5.5 to 6.5. The best method to determine lime and fertilizer requirements is by soil testing. Some factors to consider in the fertility program are the method of fertilizer application, crop use (fresh or processing), variety, length of the growing season, and manure applications. The fertility value of a legume crop grown the previous season should also be considered. Excess nitrogen fertilization delays maturity, while excess potassium greatly hinders the uptake of magnesium and reduces the firmness of the potato (decreases the specific gravity). Magnesium is recommended when soil levels of magnesium are low or potassium levels are excessively high.
Potato varieties recommended for the northeastern United States are listed in Table 1.
Table 1. Recommended potato varieties for the northeastern United States.
|Variety||Skin Color||Flesh Color|
|Snowden (chips only)||white||white|
|Dark Red Norland||red||white|
|Kueka Gold||white-buff||pale yellow|
|Russian Banana||yellow-buff||pale yellow|
|Villeta Rose||red||white (mostly B-size potatoes|
Adapted from B. Lamont, Producing Specialty Potatoes - Preplant Through Harvest.
Use only certified seed or seed known to be free of virus diseases. Space seed pieces 7 to 12 inches apart in the row. Spacing varies with potato variety, soil type, amount of moisture available, fertility and the amount of fertilizer applied, and potato size desired at harvest time (closer planting yields smaller potatoes).
In conventionally grown potatoes, the amount of nitrogen applied typically ranges from 160 to 200 pounds per acre depending on the variety. Cultivation is often used to break the soil crust, promote aeration, and kill the first flush of weeds not controlled by herbicides. Later the potatoes have soil ridged over the rows ("hilled") to prevent greening and control weeds in the row. If hilling is delayed, be careful to minimize root damage caused by tillage. Hilling should be completed before the potatoes start to bloom. Potatoes are typically fertilized twice -- first at planting when a band of fertilizer is placed along-side the row, and later when the plants are side-dressed during cultivation or at hilling.
Potatoes are well suited for production in a plasticulture system (using plastic mulches, drip irrigation, fertigation, row covers, and even fumigation, if needed). Although primarily used by smaller growers (less than 5 acres of potatoes) due to the slower planting speed and specialized equipment required, this method produces excellent yields of high-quality potatoes. Plastic mulches warm up the soils faster in the spring and hasten the emergence of the potato plants. The plastic mulch also prevents weeds and eliminates the need to hill and cultivate.
Because drip irrigation provides complete control over the amount of moisture applied, it is also an excellent method for applying precise amounts of nutrients. Tissue-culture sampling should be used to measure plant nutrient needs so excessive fertilizer is not applied. The only drawback to plasticulture is in handling the waste plastic at the end of the season. Due largely to eliminating preemergence herbicides, plasticulture greatly simplifies the production of organic potatoes.
Like nearly all vegetable crops, potatoes require weed, disease, and insect management. By practicing IPM (integrated pest management), growers can greatly reduce their reliance on chemicals. IPM includes use of crop rotation, cover crops, nutrient management, predictive computer models for insects and diseases, crop scouting, improved varieties, and other related practices and techniques to produce a high-quality crop and keep pesticide use to a minimum. In an IPM protocol the sole difference between an organic grower and a so-called conventional grower is their selection of pesticides and fertilizers. Organic growers are limited to fertilizers and pesticides that are on the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) list, while conventional growers can use both OMRI-approved materials and any other federally approved pesticide.
Weed management can be achieved with herbicides, cultivation, plastic mulch, and crop rotation. Several preplant and postemergence herbicides are available for potatoes depending on the specific weed problem and potato growth stage. Careful preparation of a long-term crop-rotation scheme can greatly reduce populations of difficult-to-control weeds as a grower can vary cultivation and rotate herbicides. Early cultivation can be used in conventionally planted systems when weeds are young and before the potato canopy has closed.
Several insects can cause severe problems in potatoes, including Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, aphids, leafhoppers, wireworms, and corn borers. Monitoring insect populations by scouting is critical in determining when you should use insecticides and which materials you should spray. Some of the newer insecticides are applied in the furrow at planting. Local and regional corn-borer-trapping programs focused on sweet corn provide important local information to time spray applications. Wireworms are a particularly difficult pest that can be monitored using field-corn-monitoring stations.
Several potato diseases can cause severe crop losses if not properly managed. These include early blight, late blight, common and powdery scab, blackleg, leaf roll and mosaic viruses, rhizoctonia, verticillium wilt, fusarium dry rot, and bacterial soft rot. Although the list of diseases seems overwhelming, most diseases can be managed with disease-resistant varieties, crop rotation, and proper use and timing of fungicides. It is also important to be aware of weather conditions that are related to the spread of certain diseases such as late blight. Growers can also access computer models based on local and regional weather patterns to obtain important data to help in managing diseases.
Harvest and Storage
Depending on the variety grown, potatoes are generally harvested from mid-July through October in the northeastern United States. Potatoes are harvested when they are mature or when the skins are set. In any case, harvest when the air and soil temperatures are above 45°F. Care should be taken to prevent bruising potatoes during harvesting, storing, grading, and marketing. Newly harvested potatoes can be sold immediately after harvest.
Consumers and restaurants often seek out these "fresh" or "new" potatoes, which often bring a premium price. Because the skins are very tender, handle them carefully, wash them only as much as necessary, allow them to dry, and get them to market quickly.
When storing potatoes, ventilation, storage temperatures, and relative humidity are important factors to consider.
Storage conditions during the first 10 to 14 days are critical to heal cuts and bruises in newly harvested potatoes to ensure you have a high-quality crop to market. Make sure there is good air movement, a temperature about 65°F, and high relative humidity (85 to 90 percent) in the potato storage facility during this period. Temperature should then be reduced very slowly (one degree per day) to the final storage temperature. Potatoes stored longer than three months for the fresh or tablestock market should be held at 38 to 40°F. Maintain relative humidity at 85 percent or higher to help prevent shrinkage and pressure bruising and to keep the potatoes firm. Be sure to consult an agricultural engineer who is familiar with the construction of potato storages when building a new potato storage facility or renovating an older facility. Plastic bulk containers are recommended for storing larger quantities of potatoes because they are much easier to clean than wooden ones.
In the normal course of operations, farmers handle pesticides and other chemicals, may have manure to collect and spread, and use equipment to prepare fields and harvest crops. Any of these routine on-farm activities can be a potential source of surface or groundwater pollution. Because of this possibility, you must understand the regulations you must follow concerning the proper handling and application of chemicals and the disposal and transport of waste. Depending on the watershed where your farm is located, there may be additional environmental regulations regarding erosion control, pesticide leaching, and nutrient runoff. Contact your soil and water conservation district, extension office, zoning board, state departments of agriculture and environmental protection, and local governing authorities to determine what regulations may pertain to your operation.
Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling Practices
Good agricultural practices (GAP) and good handling practices (GHP) are voluntary programs that you may wish to consider for your operation. The idea behind these programs is to ensure a safer food system by reducing the chances for foodborne illnesses resulting from contaminated products reaching consumers. Also, several major food distribution chains are beginning to require GAP- and GHP-certified products from their producers.
These programs set standards for worker hygiene, use of manure, and water supply quality.
These handling practices require an inspection from a designated third party and there are fees associated with the inspection. Prior to an inspection, you will need to develop and implement a food safety plan and designate someone in your operation to oversee this plan. You will need to have any water supply used by your workers or for crop irrigation and pesticide application checked at least twice each year. A checklist of the questions to be asked during the inspection can be found on the USDA website. For more information about GAP and GHP, contact your local extension office or your state's department of agriculture.
You should carefully consider how to manage risk on your farm. First, you should insure your facilities and equipment. This may be accomplished by consulting your insurance agent or broker. It is especially important to have adequate levels of property, vehicle, and liability insurance. You will also need workers compensation insurance if you have any employees. You may also want to consider your needs for life and health insurance and if you need coverage for business interruption or employee dishonesty. For more on agricultural business insurance, see Agricultural Business Insurance.
Second, check to see if there are multi-peril crop insurance programs available for your crop or livestock enterprises. There are crop insurance programs designed to help farmers manage both yield risk and revenue shortfalls. Crop insurance is available for potatoes, but individual crop insurance coverage is not available for all vegetable crops. If individual coverage is not available for what you grow, you may be able to use the AGR/AGR-Lite program to insure the revenue of your entire farm operation. To use AGR-Lite you must have 5 years of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Schedule F forms.
More information concerning crop insurance for potatoes.
Finally, the USDA Farm Service Agency has a program called the Non-insured Assistance Program (NAP) that is designed to provide a minimal level of yield risk protection for producers of commercial agricultural products that don't have multi-peril crop insurance coverage. NAP is designed to reduce financial losses when natural disasters cause catastrophic reduction in production. NAP coverage is available through your local USDA Farm Service Agency office. The application fee for this program may be waived for eligible limited-resource farmers.
The sample budgets included in this publication summarize the costs and returns for table-stock potatoes grown both conventionally and in a plasticulture system. These budgets should help ensure that you include all costs and receipts in your calculations. Costs and returns are often difficult to estimate in budget preparation because they are numerous and variable. Think of these budgets as an approximation and make appropriate adjustments using the "your estimate" column to reflect your specific production conditions. More information on using crop budgets can be found in Enterprise Budget Analysis.
You can make changes to the interactive PDF budget files for this publication by inputting your own prices and quantities in the green outlined cells for any item. The cells outlined in red automatically calculate your revised totals based on the changes you made to the cells outlined in green. You will need to click on and add your own estimated price and quantity information to all of the green outlined cells to complete your customized budget. When you are done, you can print the budget using the green Print Form button at the bottom of the form. You can use the red Clear Form button to clear all the information from your budget when you are finished.
Sample Potato Budgets
Sample Potato Budget - Conventional Production
Sample Potato Budget - Plasticulture Production
For More Information
Bohl, W. H., S. B. Johnson, eds. Commercial Potato Production in North America. Orono, Me.: Potato Association of America, 2010.
Christ, B. J. Potato Diseases in Pennsylvania. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University, 1998.
Dunn, J. W., J. K. Harper, and L. F. Kime. Fruit and Vegetable Marketing for Smallscale and Part-time Growers. University Park: Penn State Extension, 2009.
Johnson, D. A, ed. Potato Health Management. St. Paul, Minn.: APS Press, 1993.
Hallee, Neal D., J. Hunter, and S. H. Belyea. Potato Storage Design and Management. Bulletin #1092. Orono:University of Maine Cooperative Extension, 1995.
Harper, J. K., S. Cornelisse, L. F. Kime, and J. Hyde. Budgeting for Agricultural Decision Making. University Park: Penn State Extension, 2013.
Kime, L. F., J. A. Adamik, E. E. Gantz, and J. K. Harper. Agricultural Business Insurance. University Park: Penn State Extension, 2004.
Lamont, W. J., A. R. Jarrett, L. F. Kime, and J. K. Harper. Irrigation for Fruit and Vegetable Production. University Park: Penn State Extension, 2012.
Lamont, W. J., M. D. Orzolek, J. K. Harper, L. F. Kime, and A. R. Jarrett. Drip Irrigation for Vegetable Production. University Park: Penn State Extension, 2012.
Maynard, D. N., and G. J. Hochmuth. Knott's Handbook for Vegetable Growers. 5th ed. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2006.
Orzolek, M. D., W. J. Lamont, T. Elkner, K. Demchak, E. Sanchez, J. M. Halbrendt, S. J. Fleischer, L. LaBorde, K. Hoffman, and G. San Julian. 2013 Pennsylvania Commercial Vegetable Production Recommendations. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University, 2013.
Stevenson, W., R. Loria, G. D. Franc, and D. P. Weingartner, eds. Compendium of Potato Diseases. 2nd ed. St. Paul, Minn.: APS Press, 2001.
Pennsylvania Co-operative Potato Growers, Inc.
3107 North Front Street
Harrisburg, PA 17110-1310
Pennsylvania Vegetable Growers Association
815 Middle Road
Richfield, PA 17086-9626
Initial Resource Requirements:Conventional Production
- Land: 1 acre
- Labor: $450 to $550
- Capital: $2,700 to $3,100
- Equipment: tractor (50 to 75 hp); boom sprayer; potato harvester
Initial Resource Requirements: Plasticulture Production
- Land: 1 acre
- Labor: $850 to $1,50
- Capital: $4,300 to $4,600
- Equipment: tractor (50 to 75 hp); boom sprayer; plastic mulch layer; mulch lifter; irrigation system; rotary mower
Prepared by Steven M. Bogash, retired extension educator; William J. Lamont Jr., professor of horticulture; R. Matthew Harsh, Harsh Consulting; Lynn F. Kime, senior extension associate; and Jayson K. Harper, professor of agricultural economics.
This publication was developed by the Small-scale and Part-time Farming Project at Penn State with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Extension Service.