Potatoes, grain make a good mix

When he was playing minor league baseball in Twin Falls, Idaho, Pat McCotter saw a lot of potatoes, but never dreamed he would some day be growing spuds. After nearly 40 years growing potatoes, McCotter is the last grower left in his area along the Pamlico Sound in eastern North Carolina.

“I never had a thought of farming. I played baseball at East Carolina University and then signed a professional contract and played on several minor league teams. Growing up, we had a small farm, about 300 acres, but I had no interest in it — I ran one of my father's grocery stores,” he recalls.

When he started farming, McCotter approached it like all his previous endeavors — all out. “When I started farming, we had a county agent named Ken Ray, and without his help, I would never have made it,” McCotter laughs. “I had never had an interest in agriculture, and I literally didn't know anything about it,” he adds.

In his 40-plus years as a farmer, he has learned a lot about farming, and on his two farms, McCotter Farms and Big M Farms, the North Carolina farmer grows 5,400 acres of potatoes, corn, soybeans — both full season and double-cropped, and wheat. With his double-crop beans, McCotter farms over 7,000 acres of crops per year.

His 1,685 acres of red and white potatoes are grown for both chipping and table stock. About 1,100 acres he says goes to Frito-Lay and to UTZ for potato chips and the remaining acres go for table stock.

In eastern North Carolina, potatoes go into the ground in February and are harvested, processed and sold in a 5-6 week period in June and July. Early planted potatoes are primarily there for storage — they don't grow much until the weather warms up, but to get planting done in a way to insure we can get the potatoes out in the 5-6 week window, we stagger planting from February to April, McCotter explains.

“We bring in our seed stock from Maine, size them and cut them — up to six times for the larger potatoes. Once the coated seed pieces are set and planted, it takes 90-100 days for them to mature, then we start harvesting the potatoes,” McCotter says.

One of the keys to his success as a potato grower is working with a crop consultant who has been in the business all of his life. Bruce Niederhauser, who literally grew up watching his father work with potatoes, helps McCotter manage his potatoes and works with him on most of the other nearly 4,000 acres of crops.

“On these long blocks of potatoes, we may have three or four different rates of fertilizer and across the whole 1,685 acres, the blend and rate changes. “I guess you could say we have a prescription fertilizer program. Over the years, it has saved us dollars and cents in production and dollars and cents in harvest because we know we are getting the right amount of the right blend of fertilizer to our crops — and at the right time,” McCotter says.

The other obstacle comes from managing diseases and insects. Since he is the only potato grower left in the area, there aren't a lot of local resources from which he can tap information. Again, turning to his crop consultant for help, McCotter says two field monitors set up that are called ‘blight-casters’. These tell the North Carolina grower when to spray, and perhaps as importantly, when not to spray.

“Right now we are scouting heavily for Colorado potato beetle and corn borers and potato blight is an ongoing problem that we have to monitor. A new problem for McCotter is tomato spotted wilt virus. In 2002, it was identified in potato fields in North Carolina and has been a sporadic problem since that time.

With such a large farming operation, McCotter says labor can be a big problem, but with all the farmers in the area leaving potatoes, there is a good pool of competent seasonal labor to help him dig and process his crop. “At one time we had eight potato growers in this county, over a period of years they all dropped out and this year will be the first year we have been the only ones left,” McCotters says.

The North Carolina grower rotates all his potatoes with corn. In some extreme cases, he goes back to back years with potatoes. Though he has plenty of land, much of it is too course for potatoes.

Though he is located only a few miles from the first ethanol plant in the Southeast, the North Carolina grower says he doesn't expect to dramatically increase his corn production — unless the premium for corn is higher than the projected five cents a bushel. “We have increased our corn storage capacity to 200,000 bushels, so we are getting ready should the demand for corn from the ethanol plant encourage us to grow more corn,” McCotter explains.

“I wouldn't put corn in the ground for a nickel a bushel. The only way corn will get a premium price is for the plant to make a commitment to use local corn first,” McCotter contends. He points out that North Carolina is corn deficient state already and that most of the corn for the ethanol plant will have to come from other states — unless there is an incentive for North Carolina growers to dramatically increase acreage.

Enough incentive for farmers would more likely be a 40-50 cent premium for corn, McCotter contends. Even so, most of the corn would have to be brought in by rail, he adds.

Though potatoes and corn are his staple crops, soybeans make up the most acreage, primarily because of double-cropping beans with potatoes. “If we get our potatoes out on time — by mid-July, we will have time for our double-crop beans. If we can get our soybeans harvested by late November, we will be in good shape,” he explains.

Because of double-cropping nearly 2,000 acres of soybeans, yields average around 35 bushels per acre. Add that to 130 bushels per acre of corn and 20,000 to 23,000 pounds per acre of potatoes, and it is easy to see why McCotter has been in the farming business for 40 years.

So far 2006 has been a perfect planting and growing season for eastern North Carolina growers. “In over 40 years in farming, this is the first time we have ever gotten our potatoes in exactly the way and time we wanted,” McCotter says. By early May, his corn crop was also up and growing.

“Something always happens, that's what makes farming fun, McCotter laughs. Though baseball was his first love, it is clear that farming is his real love.

e-mail: [email protected]

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