Photos from the Field: Potato farming

by | Feb 14, 2011

Irish potatoes are collected and weighed in Duplin County, circa 1940.

During Dr. Matt Martin’s keynote address at the N.C. Ag Development Forum earlier this month, he spoke about the way in which farm commodity costs have risen over the past century. According to Martin, farm commodities have increased at a slower rate than other commodities because of rapid advances in farming technology. Increased technology has allowed agriculture and agribusinesses to do more with less. Tommy Fleetwood, NCDA&CS marketing specialist, helped explain these advances using N.C. potatoes.

Potatoes were a labor-intensive crop well into the first half of the 20th century. At one time, farmers harvested potatoes by hand and weighed them in the field using a simple scale and burlap sacks. The potatoes were loaded on a truck and then shipped directly to market. Fleetwood says mechanical potato harvesters made the job much easier. Now, the harvesters are attached to tractors. As they move down each row, mechanical diggers scoop the potatoes out of the soil and onto a conveyor belt that loads them into the back of a truck.

Automated baggers sort potatoes by size, top, to ensure each bag weighs within two ounces of the desired weight.

Once harvested, the potatoes are taken to a packing shed, where they are washed, graded and packaged. Burlap bags have been replaced with the polybags seen in most grocers’ produce section, and computerized baggers can fill close to 60 five-pound bags per second.  What’s even more impressive is that these sorters are accurate within two ounces.

The state is the 15th largest potato producer in the country. While N.C. potatoes supply farmers markets, roadside stands and grocery stores, 70 percent of N.C. potatoes are used for potato chips. The chips are processed in-state by Lance and Frito-Lay, as well as shipped nationally and internationally. Because of increased technology, N.C. potatoes can be shipped as far away as Canada and arrive within 48 hours of harvest.

For additional information on N.C. potatoes, including nutritional information, recipes and special events, go to the N.C. Potato Association’s website.