Growing happy potatoes in Kittson County
By Anna Jauhola
It’s likely almost everyone in Kittson County has eaten Dagen-raised, Hapka-grown potatoes – whether it’s from the freezer aisle at the grocery store or at a restaurant in the region.
Justin Dagen and his family at Karlstad raise seed potatoes. Lance Hapka and his family at Halma raise Umatilla russets for Simplot in Grand Forks. Hapka purchases much of his seed potatoes from Dagen.
Thus, the only two potato farmers in Kittson County are closely connected. Yet their operations are completely different.
Hapka grows all his potatoes in one location, stores them on his farm and relies on irrigation. Dagen grows his potatoes in several locations from Lancaster down to Argyle, stores them in four locations and relies on drain tile. He said this makes for “very happy potatoes.”
“As a seed grower, we like to spread out our acres for a number of meteorological reasons,” Dagen said. “Ours are all dryland potatoes.”
While Dagen’s fields typically feature heavier soils, Hapka’s 750 acres directly north of Halma is sandy soil. They usually implement their irrigation pivots in June, July and August, and are regulated in how much water they can use in a season. Hapka’s sister, Jennifer Borowicz, handles permitting and paperwork for the irrigation.
“It helps us to maintain quality on the potatoes during the harvest season too,” he said. “It is a unique thing in Kittson County. We’re blessed to have a water source underneath us but it goes hand-in-hand with the type of soil we grow in, which is a very sandy soil. It’s not very productive unless we have water.”
The Hapka operation also uses some intermittent grid tile in problem areas so potatoes don’t get waterlogged during wet years. When they require water, they draw from an aquifer and also nearby gravel pits. They have an underground piping system that can provide water at any pivot irrigator on their land. They also rotate other crops on their land to give the soils a rest.
“My dad (Leon) started farming here in the mid-1990s and I started farming basically in 2005 with my dad,” Hapka said.
Prior to that, Hapka’s dad began his farming career at Argyle, Minn., where he got into growing seed potatoes as well. When Hapka started farming, they drove back and forth to the farm at Halma. Eventually, he and his wife, Katrina, and children moved to Halma permanently. They now all have a big stake in raising potatoes.
“Our main thing is growing potatoes for Simplot,” he said. “They sell to a lot of quick-serve restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King, Chick Fil A and Whataburger. But Simplot in Grand Forks specializes in a certain coating and lattice cut fries, like waffle fries. So they sell a lot to Sysco brand to local restaurants.”
Before potatoes can be passed on to the consumer, they go through quite the journey from field to table. Dagen’s family has been growing seed potatoes in Kittson County since 1917. Last fall marked Dagen’s 50th harvest and his sons – Brooks and Sander – are the sixth generation to raise the crop. They rotate their potato field with other crops such as sugar beets, wheat, canola, edible beans and soybeans. This allows for better quality potatoes.
In Kittson County, potatoes begin as a stem at Dagen’s farm in a test tube. That stem is sent to a laboratory greenhouse, Dagen said, where they grow it into mini tubers the size of an adult’s fingernail, which is how they arrive back in Kittson County. That bag of tubers, about the size of a 5-gallon pail, the Dagens hand-plant into a special nursery plot with drain tile and irrigation.
“A little bag like that costs $5,000 so you got to take really good care of them,” Dagen said. “There’s a lot of technology that’s gone into it. … We grow them for three years.”
The first year of those mini tubers will produce a pickup box full of potatoes. The second and third years, those potatoes are replanted and increase by 10 times each year. Each year, the Dagens grow about 10 varieties of potatoes, including white, yellow, red and russet.
“So now I have 20 semi loads out to my customers,” he said. “That is how we buy clean seed and keep it clean and separated for three years, then it goes to commercial growers.”
Planting and raising potatoes is input intensive, costing about 10 times as much as growing an acre of wheat and twice as much as growing an acre of sugar beets. They plant 2,000 pounds of potatoes per acre, compared with about 1 pound of sugar beet seed per acre. They also have specialized planting and harvesting equipment used in potato production, along with having to monitor the product while in the ground and in storage.
“So they’re the highest input crop in Kittson County, but it comes back to consumer demand,” Dagen said. “People love eating potatoes in all forms.”
The growing season on average is 100 days long from the middle of May to the end of September, with harvest starting in late September through early October. But even before planting begins, Dagen and Hapka work to empty their storage bins. Neither one have their own truck fleet, instead working with their customers to organize transportation – Dagen with his multiple customers across the U.S. and into Canada, and Hapka with Simplot. While most of Dagen’s goes to producers, he keeps a certain amount for his own operation.
While the early days of potato harvest in Kittson County found hundreds of kids and adults picking the tubers by hand, today’s event is more mechanized and much quicker.
Harvesting potatoes is a tricky process too as they need to be harvested within a certain temperature range. The “sweet spot” is 50 degrees, Dagen said, typically before Oct. 5. The temperature is monitored by thermometers on the harvesters and in the warehouses. They don’t want potatoes getting above 60 degrees or below 32.Once potatoes are out of the ground, Dagen and Hapka are pretty much on the same mission – get them to controlled storage and keep them in good condition all winter. Dagen said they work 100 hours a week during peak growing and harvest season, but winter time dwindles to a 40-hour work week. This is where quality ventilation and cold storage come into play.
“It’s easy to grow a good potato crop, but sometimes to store it successfully for seven months can have a lot of challenges,” Dagen said.
On the Hapka farm, they have invested in massive climate controlled storage facilities. One is a double building the size of a football field, and the other is about half that size. Hapka said he can remotely monitor the potatoes on software on his phone. There are probes that monitor the potatoes’ temperatures, the outside temperature, the relative humidity and fresh air intake, and the program can control automatic doors and fans to regulate the temperature.
“It can actually use outside air that’s warmer than the inside air to cool the potatoes if the humidity is lower in the outside air,” Hapka said. “So it uses evaporative cooling to cool potatoes in some cases. And it’s all accurate to within a tenth of a degree.”
Dagen’s operation has four warehouses in Karlstad, Donaldson, Stephen and Florian. He uses the same methods of monitoring as Hapka – dozens of fans and windows for ventilation, thermometers and good old fashioned physical checks.
“It’s a daily exercise in the winter,” Dagen said. “Potato guys have to go out and check the warehouses.”
All this extraneous work is not in vain. He said markets for potatoes remain favorable and consumer demand is high.
“Are people still eating potatoes? Yes! They are!” Dagen said. “The consumption of fresh potatoes is slowly declining, by about 1 percent a year. We demand quicker meals. So there are more potatoes being consumed, but primarily in different forms of pre-prepped potatoes.”
Hapka said although the input is high, the process risky and many details go into it, he and his family still enjoy raising potatoes. In fact, his sons Luke and Levi – as young as they are – have already expressed interest in raising potatoes. Luke has prepared and given presentations on potatoes for 4-H and plans to do so again this summer at the fair.
“Potatoes are very close to the consumer,” he said. “So there’s a lot of details we have to get into that shows we grow a safe product to eat.”
Dagen hopes his sons continue to enjoy the process of growing potatoes as well.
“Growing them is not glamorous, but it’s wholesome and I’ve enjoyed it for 50 years” Dagen said. “They are nutritious, they’re delicious and they’re economical. It’s a great centerpiece to every meal.”