The hands-on portion of an Agronomist’s work starts in the early spring, right after the snow melts. The fields are “dressed” to prepare them for planting. This includes tilling the soil, performing soil testing to determine pH and other levels of nutrients, some early fertilization and insect deterrent applications may also be applied pre-planting. Once everything is satisfactory, the fields are furrowed in rows that seem to go on for miles. A mechanical potato planter is used to place small seed potatoes or cut pieces of larger ones into the ground and pre-determined spacing. One of the interesting things to note is that if seed potatoes are cut into pieces the pieces need to contain viable “eyes” as they will eventually sprout at that spot once the seed has been planted. The most important factor when planting is the use of high quality, disease-free seed stock – quality inputs lead to quality harvests. Having a solid team of behind the scenes Agronomists gives Potandon a competitive advantage in the quality arena as compared to the rest of the industry.
Once the potatoes are in the ground, they are subject to a comprehensive program of irrigation, fertilization, and any necessary disease treatments. Due to each year being different from a growing condition perspective, there is no real “canned” approach to crop management, and it’s why we have such a large team of “boots on the ground” employees watching crop development. Irrigation is a critical part of potato production as potatoes are a thirsty crop. State of the art systems are being used that water when the plants need it, not just on a schedule. These “pivots” are anchored in a single spot and are mechanically driven in huge circles to deliver water to the developing potatoes. Agronomists scout the fields at least twice a week in order to evaluate the evaporation levels, the overall health of the plants, water stress, and threats from disease or insects. Any needed crop applications can be mixed into the irrigation system, insuring full coverage.
The first few months of the cycle are focused on plant growth. Potato plants will develop quickly and as they mature will produce broad leaves which keep the lower part of the plant shaded. The spacing of the plants allow for air flow in between each vine. As the plants grow, their leaves touch forming a canopy across the field which serves to keep moisture from evaporating in between watering. The plants will start producing tubers (swollen roots) below the soil and depending on the type of potato this could be anywhere from 10 tubers to 100 tubers – this number is called the “set.” At this point, the grower pushes soil up on both sides of the plant, making small hills that act as a structure to prevent potatoes from pushing up through the soil where they’d be subject to greening and allow for additional tuber growth from a size perspective. The last part of the growing season is keeping the plants healthy as the potatoes will bulk up, with some eventually sizing up to baked potato size while others are smaller and are destined for consumer poly and mesh bags.
As the season comes to an end and the weather starts to cool down, the plants will start to wither and die – often time growers will kill the plants on a pre-determined schedule to produce potatoes of a certain size range or to have them ready for harvesting at a certain time. The dead vines are removed from the field and the potatoes go through a final maturation period just sitting in the ground. During this time the skins thicken up which allows for mechanical harvesting to be done without cosmetically ruining the potato. This takes about three weeks on average.
Finally harvest time comes around. Specialized digging machines push long tines deep into the soil to get underneath the potatoes and gently turn them so they are on the surface of the field. Another machine lifts them onto a series of conveyor belts to remove soil, rocks, and other debris. The combine loads the potatoes into trucks which drive alongside which transport the newly dug potatoes from the field to climate controlled storage facilities for future use or directly to the packing shed to be washed, graded and packed for shipment to warehouses across the country.
Climate controlled storage facilities are one of the most amazing parts of commercial farming as they have temperature and humidity controls that allow growers to store potatoes for up to one year if necessary. These storage facilities are cool, dark and well ventilated to accommodate for long term storage of the potatoes. Throughout the winter, growers will slowly warm up a storage facility before it’s opened and the potatoes are brought into the packing facility for grading. The benefit of this type of process is that it breaks up the crop into many small lots which can be regulated against disease and other issues which can impact quality. These storages are on a schedule and are opened in succession as the winter and spring progresses into summer. Technology is always being applied to improve the process to insure we can provide high quality potatoes each and every week of the year.
Our onion farmers have a similar process, first by tilling their fields and preparing them prior to planting season. The fields are fertilized and prepared for the coming growing season that lasts 5-6 months. The seed beds are harrowed flat and the planting begins. Once onion seeds are planted, they are fertilized and watered. About 2/3 of the onion actually grows on top of the soil. The bulb of the onion grows at a rate that is directly reflective of the length of the day and the latitude at which it is grown. Irrigation is stopped according to the size and maturity of the plants. Farmers know when the onions reach maturity because the tops will naturally fall over.
Using a special attachment for the tractor, onions are lifted out of the ground to break the root system. Lifting is done when the temperature is less than 90 degrees. Onions are then left to dry on top of the soil for about 2 weeks. Onion tops are mechanically removed and the onions are placed in large rows, ready to harvest. Onion loaders load the onion bulbs into trucks to be transported to storage or packing facilities.
At the storage facilities, onions are loaded into bins or bulk storage. Onion bins are slotted wooden boxes that are about 4 ft. by 6 ft. and 30 inches deep. Bulk storage is a huge pile of onions, 9 to 14 ft. tall. During storage air fans constantly blow air through bins and piles of onions to cure and dry the bulbs so that they do not go bad during storage or processing.
In each of these production steps, an Agronomist is present, making sure things go according to plan, or in some cases lending expertise advice when things go awry due to weather or other issues. By having a team of people who bring the benefits of science to the entire process, Potandon is able to stay at the forefront of the fresh potato and onion industry.
Is a seed just a seed, or is it something more? To some shippers it may be just a seed, but at Potandon it’s so much more. Being the only fresh potato supplier in the nation with our very own seed breeding and Development Company might make us a little biased, but it’s a bias we are quite proud of. It could be because of the time investment we make in seed development; each one of our potato varieties is the product of a decade of development for their seed type. It starts in our greenhouse facilities where our breeders choose high quality “parental” stock to be cross pollinated to create true potato seed. Through micropropagation, a batch of potato seedlings is produced which will eventually be developed and planted in an actual field. This process sounds simple, but in reality this portion takes three years. Over the next five years, these emerging varieties are exposed to a myriad of environmental conditions to determine if they have the “right stuff” to eventually make it to market. We perform growing trials with these potatoes using different soil types, elevations, climates, water and fertilizer levels, plus other agronomic variables. This allows us to identify stronger and more viable seed strains which eventually will produce better and longer lasting potatoes.
Finally near the end of this decade of research, only a handful of varieties are usually left and those will be turned over to the sales and marketing teams for branding, naming, and eventually introduction to the retail and wholesale world for sale to consumers nationwide.
The “parental” stock we use comes from regions across the world. Potandon has strategic relationships with agricultural experts in Germany, France, Korea, Canada, and South America, the home of the potato. We send people to look at multiple growing operations in many places and through a series of rigorous checks and balances, choose the ones that have the best chance of being a commercial variety in the next decade. Some of the things we evaluate are size, color, yield, shape, growing cycle, and most importantly taste. For decades the potato has been considered a carrier food, meaning it serves to carry other flavors such as gravy or ketchup. We bring potatoes to the market that taste great without adding anything else.
Potandon Produce is one of the pioneers in the produce industry when it comes to Food Safety. Our leadership started 23 years ago when we implemented a complete Food Safety program and third-party audit system at the packinghouse level. When Food Safety became the new normal, Potandon was already a decade ahead of the rest of the potato and onion industry. This leadership exists today and is ingrained in every part of our business model.
Starting with our ownership and senior management, the total company commitment to Food Safety is evident. Our programs are forward-thinking, well organized, and contain multiple review points from multiple sources to ensure we are sending out products our customers can trust. We work with the best third party auditing companies in the nation including the American Institute of Baking, Silliker, Primus Labs, SGS, and NSF/Davis Fresh. Our packing facilities are certified with the Primus GFS certification, which is an approved GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) benchmarked program.
All Potandon facilities are FDA registered under the Bio Terrorism Act of 2002 and the Food Safety Modernization Act. Everyone is COOL compliant (Country of Origin) and have all required insurances, facility inspections, and water testing. As per the Food Safety Modernization Act, HACCP testing is done at each facility and reviewed on a regular basis. We also have an established Food Security/Defense program at all facilities.
In order to be certain that we have the means to handle any emergency, a complete Trace Recall Program was established. Our packages have traceable coding and we practice mock-recalls with very tight time requirements. We also have a consumer hotline for concerns of any type.
Potandon fields a staff of over 20 Quality Assurance inspectors who monitor item specifications and product quality at the packinghouse level. These team members are on-site at shipping locations on a daily basis. They check samples throughout the day for quality concerns, weights and measures, and appearance.
Each facility goes through the rigorous process of a third-party audit each year or season, depending on the type of location. In addition to the third-party audit, two additional inspections of equal caliber are done by our Food Safety management team each year. Random samplings are taken regularly for pesticide, herbicide, or fungicide residues at locations around the facility. All trucks and railcars are inspected prior to loading and proper cold-chain temperatures are maintained throughout the shipping process.