Potato grower cuts pesticide use on Minnesota land

Farm Forum

PARK RAPIDS, Minn. (AP) — A Fargo-based potato grower is finding that using fewer pesticides is better for business and the environment.

R.D. Offutt Co., the nation’s largest potato grower, cut pesticide use by 30 percent last year after installing a new system, Minnesota Public Radio News reported. Automated weather stations and an advanced computer program now help the company predict disease risk and reduce pesticide drift.

Offutt is currently using the system to monitor more than 3,000 acres in north central Minnesota. The company monitors its potato fields every day for moisture, plant growth and signs of disease.

Offutt is rethinking the way it grows potatoes and uses pesticides, pleasing concerned consumers, local residents and environmentalists.

Nick David, lead agronomist at Offutt, helps the company apply a more scientific approach to potato production in an effort to move away from the old approach to pesticide spraying.

“Farming is not a gut feeling anymore. It’s not, ‘Well, I think this is going to happen,’ or ‘this happened last year,'” he said. “Farming is very much real time, field by field.”

Offutt is also planting potato varieties that are more disease-resistant and has altered its crop rotation to lower pesticide use. The company has begun to grow potatoes on a field every four years instead of three years. By adding one year between crops, the potential for disease causing fungus in the soil reduces by 50 percent, David said.

Many local residents are pleased that the potential for pesticide drift has lessened. But others would like to see the Offutt’s pesticide use cut even more.

Carol Ashley is a longstanding critic of Offutt farms and founding member of the coalition Toxic Taters. She said pesticide drift in Park Rapids affected her health and forced her to move 20 miles away.

“I’m grateful that they’re trying,” Ashley said. “They’re paying attention finally, after what, 15 years we’ve been complaining about this? So even though we’re grateful they’re making this effort, and I think it’s a step in the right direction, we don’t think it’s enough and we’re hoping they can do more and we want to be sure people aren’t being harmed.”

Ashley and others are concerned about the effect the company’s use of fungicides has on the aquatic species and small invertebrates. She said her yard used to be covered with many different kinds of frogs and when Offutt sprayed its fields with pesticides, the frogs quickly disappeared.

Ashley hopes Offutt will one day switch to organic potato production, so that both people and animals benefit.

“Potato production can’t be profitable without pesticides,” David said, but the company is experimenting with bio-pesticides, natural defenses against disease.