Black Gold enhances potato-growing operation

Photos Courtesy of Black Gold Farms, Unless Otherwise Noted.
Harvest begins around Memorial Day on the Arbyrd farm.
Potato progress is checked during the growing season.

Often referred to as “Irish” potatoes to distinguish them from sweet potatoes, potatoes were introduced in Europe in the mid-1500s and quickly became a food and crop staple. Dependence on potatoes without genetic diversity turned disastrous when a potato blight caused major crop failures across Ireland and led to the mid-1800s Irish famine. Potatoes are one of the most consumed crops in the United States, representing an approximately $3.2 billion crop, and more than 1 million acres are planted annually, according to the National Potato Council.

Black Gold Farms, Inc., a fourth-generation family-owned and operated company, opened its Arbyrd, Mo., operation a decade ago. Black Gold is on the forefront of innovative use of technology and is adding table stock potatoes to its Arbyrd chip potato market production. Black Gold is based in Grand Forks, N.D. The company launched its first venture out of North Dakota in Charleston, Mo., in 1986, and now grows potatoes at 10 sites in 10 states.

Black Gold has received the Frito-Lay Clem Kuehler worldwide innovation award three of the four times it has been awarded. Kuehler helped start numerous innovative Frito-Lay international projects, and the company named the award in honor of his accomplishments.

The company was started as a certified seed potato operation in 1928, and has produced potatoes primarily for the chip potato market since 1959. A Frito-Lay potato chip factory in Jonesboro, Ark., is a major market for the Missouri production. John Halverson, vice president of operations, is responsible for southeast Missouri, Texas, Indiana and Michigan operations.

“Potatoes for the Midwest typically come from Texas and Florida,” Halverson said. “Southeast Missouri’s central location and harvest timing means less transportation is required to move potatoes to markets.”

Potatoes grow best in well-drained, sandy or silty loam, and southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas have an abundance of sandy soil. A significant portion of the Arbyrd farm lies across the state line in Arkansas.

Photo Courtesy of Scott Monfort, University of Arkansas Extension.
Scott Monfort discusses importance of soil mapping nematode management.

Managing an expanding company

An executive committee guides the company through management decisions. Halverson’s father, Gregg, president and CEO, and his brother Eric, vice president of technology, are located in Grand Forks. The executive committee is comprised of the three Halversons, along with John Nordgaard, senior vice president of operations, and two other management personnel.

“We like to keep day-to-day operational decisions at the farms with the farm managers,” Halverson said. Nathan Waddill is farm manager at Arbyrd, and Lawrence Hayes at Charleston.

Halverson’s great-grandfather started growing seed potatoes on a 10-acre plot in the Red River Valley of North Dakota. Table stock potatoes were added to the operation, and by 1959, potatoes were produced primarily for the potato chip market. Black Gold Farms was officially organized in the 1960s. Looking toward future needs, a sales division organized as Black Gold Potato Sales, Inc., was launched in the 1980s.

Halverson said, “In the 1980s, agriculture started consolidating. We decided to try to go south to be nearer regional chip plants. We’re taking production nearer the factories.” The company emphasizes economic, environmental and social sustainability in its operations.

“We have smaller, leaner farms,” Halverson said, noting the importance of that and limited transportation in reducing carbon emissions.

Potatoes in bloom grow at Black Gold’s Arbyrd farm site
Harvesting on the Arbyrd farm.

Technology enhances production

Research continues to be an important part of crop production, and Black Gold conducts research trials at several locations. “We’re conducting variety trials, fertilizer trials, and nematode control and prevention trials,” Halverson said.

Black Gold is using an Odenberg optical sorting machine in Arbyrd to sort chip potatoes for quality. “We’re the first farm site to use the optical sorting, which is being used in the food processing industry,” Halverson said. The sorter uses multiple wavelengths of visible and infrared illumination in the sorting process. Odenberg is an international company with U.S. operations headquarters in Sacramento, Calif.

The Mississippi Delta of Missouri, an approximately 4,000-square-mile region, includes about 2.5 million acres of high-producing agricultural land. Black Gold uses center pivot irrigation, and irrigation has increased over the years in row crop production. The U.S. EPA has developed a program to help maintain and enhance Missouri’s portion of the Delta alluvial aquifer through reducing water runoff, and thereby reducing pesticides entering groundwater.

Black Gold specifically targets its chemical use to areas of the fields where it is actually needed. Each fall, soil is fumigated to help control southern root-knot nematodes. While soil fumigation has been practiced in some form for many years, Black Gold is taking the process a step further with the use of a Veris 3100 Soil EC mapping system to map and specifically target applications.

Dr. Scott Monfort, plant pathologist at University of Arkansas Extension, focuses on plant parasitic nematodes. Monfort noted that numerous species of nematodes exist and are problematic in a variety of soils. “Southern root-knot nematode, though, particularly thrives better and causes more damage in sandy soils,” he said.

Monfort pointed out that understanding the differences in soil types within fields allows growers to more efficiently define potential nematode problem areas and selectively target those areas for application of chemicals. By combining soil mapping, nematode sampling and site-specific application equipment with GPS technology, growers can further enhance their management strategies by locating areas of highest risk and apply chemicals only where needed.

Monfort said, “This approach to nematode management has shown positive results in not only controlling nematodes, but also reducing input costs for growers and chemical load in the environment.”

Soil electrical conductivity is one method that can be used to aid in mapping the relative changes in soil textures. Conductivity can be measured by electromagnetic induction or direct contact. Black Gold uses a Veris 3100 Soil EC machine manufactured by Veris Technologies of Salina, Kan., that measures electrical conductivity by direct contact with the soil. The Veris soil electrical conductivity implement works by determining the soil’s ability to conduct electricity. Low conductivity represents more sandy soil, medium conductivity means more silty soil, and high conductivity represents more clay soil.

The Veris machine is a small implement that can be pulled across fields while electrodes apply a current to two sending coulters and measure the voltage recorded through four receiving coulters spaced out on the implement. A plug-in GPS maps the fields and the recorded soil electrical conductivity data.

Monfort said, “This type of imagery allows us to zone in on places where different growing conditions are located. There is usually mixing of soil types, and soil sampling may still be required, but this mapping gives us a place to start.”

With the addition of table stock potatoes at the Arbyrd location, Black Gold is constructing a new state-of-the-art, 10,800-square-foot packing building that meets EPA requirements as a green, or sustainable, building.

According to the EPA, buildings account for 39 percent of total energy use, and the agency has designated specific requirements for green buildings to help create healthier environments and use resources more efficiently.

Growing for regional markets

About 2,500 acres of potatoes are grown at the Arbyrd farm and about 1,700 acres at the Charleston farm. Planting in southeast Missouri starts in mid-March, and harvesting begins around Memorial Day. Planting is done with Harriston potato planters manufactured by Harriston Industries, Inc. in Minto, N.D., and harvesting is done with Lockwood harvesters manufactured by Lockwood Mfg. of Fargo, N.D.

With its expanded operations into Missouri and other states, Black Gold is growing potatoes nearer its major markets in the South, Midwest and East Coast. In addition to its Missouri sites, Black Gold grows potatoes on farms located in Live Oak., Fla., Hawkinsville, Ga., Columbia, N.C., Winamac, Ind., Rhodesville, Md., Sturgis, Mich., and the original farm in Forest River, N.D.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Growing. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.