Southeast Missouri potato farms battle heat during harvest

Monday, June 28, 2010 ~ Updated 5:40 PM
Gary Bula, owner of Heartland Potatoes near Benton, watches as the crop runs through a sorting machine at the facility. Once potatoes are harvested from the field, they are sized, sorted and have debris removed, then transported to processing facilities. (Michelle Felter/Standard Democrat)

SIKESTON, Mo. -- For the past two weeks, trucks hauling potatoes from fields to their local plants and then processing facilities have been on the roads.

And officials at two of Southeast Missouri's potato farms say as this year's harvest continues, they can only hope for a break in the temperatures, the Sikeston Standard Democrat reported.

"The heat has made for some very long days for our crew," said Gregg Halverson, president and chief executive officer of Black Gold Potatoes, which has a facility in Charleston. "I would estimate the longevity of the potatoes has been shortened somewhat, and we're working very hard to get them out of the fields."

Gary Bula, owner of Heartland Potatoes near Benton, agreed. "The heat hurts the potatoes," he said. "We're just concerned about the heat continuing for any duration right now."

Halverson noted Black Gold Potatoes, which plants and harvests in Scott and Mississippi counties, have used quite a bit of irrigation water to keep the crop thriving in the 90-degree weather Southeast Missouri has been experiencing.

Despite all of the heat, the crop looks good so far, Halverson and Bula agreed.

"In general, the crop looks just absolutely excellent," said Halverson. "The quality is very good and yields are above average."

Southeast Missouri is also home to Sowinski Farms in Charleston, which plants thousands of acres of potatoes along with other crops.

Both Black Gold and Heartland started the annual harvest around June 12. As the potatoes have a short shelf life, especially in the heat, work must be done quickly to eliminate waste.

Once potatoes are harvested in the fields, they are brought back to the facilities, where they are sorted and sized. "Any bad potatoes or debris are taken out, then they are loaded bulk into semi trailers," said Bula.

While the number of semis varies, Bula said 20 typically leave Heartland's facility daily, while Halverson said they often load as many as 50 semis each day.

Those semis transport the potatoes to facilities across the U.S. All of the potatoes harvested by Black Gold are used for potato chips, with several manufactured by Lays.

"Lays is a very large customer of ours -- there is a very high chance that their potato chips you buy will be made from potatoes from Southeast Missouri," said Halverson. "In fact, you can look at their website and see pictures of Southeast Missouri potatoes."

A majority, but not all, of Heartland's potatoes are taken to potato chip processing facilities.

"Ninety percent of our potatoes are used for potato chips," said Bula. "The other 10 percent, which are a different variety, are used for potato salad."

And a bulk of those potato chips are processed and then sold in Southeast Missouri stores, too.

"Some of the potatoes loaded here go to a plant in Fulton," said Bula. The company, Backers, sells potato chips at Walmart stores.

Bula said having the processing facility less than four hours away is a good way to reduce the company's carbon footprint. "We can cut down on transportation costs," he said.

Charleston also has a good location when it comes to transportation, said Halverson.

"There is overnight delivery to many of the potato chip manufacturers," he said. "Many times, the potatoes are made into chips within 48 hours."

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