ESCANABA - Baked, boiled, or chipped potatoes are a mainstay on dinner plates across America. Thanks to a good growing season, many of those plates may be filled with Upper Peninsula potatoes.
"It looks like it has a potential to be a good crop," said Warren Schauer, Michigan State University Extension business management educator for the Institute of Agriculture and Agribusiness.
The potato harvest in the U.P. began about a week ago, which is typical. According to Schauer, the harvest will continue into mid-October.
"The crop is pretty decent so far but they're not all out of the field yet," said Keith Lippens of Lippens Potato Farm near Escanaba, adding he believed the crop was average, but much better than last year's crop.
Last year, drought damaged much of the potato crop in the U.P. Even farms with irrigation systems experienced a harder than average season during 2012.
"We have a lot of groups who irrigate but many say the rain is even better," said Schauer.
Potato plants faired better not only because of the increase in moisture from summer rains, but also because of the relatively cool temperatures. Days with excessive heat, 90 degrees or warmer, are damaging to the crop.
During the harvesting season, the potato crop can handle light frosts, but deeper freezes could cause crop damage.
"You like to avoid a very, very heavy frost during the harvest," said Schauer, adding potatoes which freeze and are put into storage become mushy.
Because weather outlooks for this harvesting season look promising, Schauer believes consumers may see lower prices when buying potatoes. However, potato prices like other crops, fluctuate.
The majority of potatoes grown in the U.P. are either white potato varieties or russet varieties. Six varieties of potatoes are grown at the Lippens Potato Farm - including white, russet, red, Yukon, and Norland varieties. According to Lippens, growing a multitude of varieties is not unusual.
"That's part of table stocking - selling to grocery stores - you have to cater to what the customer wants," he said.
In addition to the potatoes grown for table stocking, U.P. farmers grow potatoes for processing, which are sent to plants and turned into items like potato chips, and seed potatoes, which are used to produce seeds for the next year's potato planting.
Schauer noted the technology for producing potatoes is changing and new certifications are being established to ensure that potatoes meet standards. These technological advances allow producers to inspect potatoes for rocks or other debris and to use x-rays to identify potatoes with "hollow hearts" - cavities near the center of the potatoes which make them unappealing to consumers.
"With potatoes it's a very safe production system, but even more safety systems are being put in place," he said.