Powerful machines dug potatoes from the dirt Thursday morning, cycling them onto a conveyor belt and dumping them into an truck that then transported them to a facility where they were to be washed, packaged and shipped.

Potato harvest in underway in Skagit County.

Skagit Valley Farm was in the third day of its potato harvest at its field off Cook Road near Burlington. Founder and CEO Tony Wisdom said the company expects to harvest potatoes through Thanksgiving.

Potatoes cover about 12,000 acres in Skagit County. Farmers produce an estimated $60 million in potatoes a year, making it the most lucrative crop in the county, according to 2018 agricultural statistics from the Washington State University Skagit County Extension.

Wisdom said, like many growers in the area, Skagit Valley Farm is also a packer and shipper. After harvest ends, the company shifts exclusively to packing and shipping potatoes.

He said Skagit Valley Farm sells white, yellow, red and purple potatoes to customers on the West and East coasts and in Canada.

“All potatoes in Skagit are meant for fresh market,” he said. “None are shipped for French fries or potato chips.”

He said Skagit County potatoes are high quality — smooth and brightly colored — due to Skagit Valley’s rich soil and cool, maritime climate.

Extension Director Don McMoran said about a dozen farms grow potatoes in Skagit County.

“It looks like it’s going to be a good crop this year,” he said. “We had some timely rain, but obviously it was hot and dry this summer, but not nearly as bad as the last three years.”

Skagit Valley Farm manager Casey Schols, a Skagit County native, has been harvesting potatoes for about 17 years.

“This is a lifestyle,” he said. “Not being cooped up behind a desk.”

Wisdom said the company employs about 80 during the harvest season.

In the field, workers operate potato harvesters, made by the German company Grimme. The technology is common among area growers and specifically designed for wet soil, he said.

The machines are mounted onto tractors. After the machines scoop potatoes from the ground, the potatoes fall onto a web where loose dirt falls back to the ground

The company’s largest machine can harvest four rows at once, Wisdom said.

He said he sees technology continuing to evolve.

“I think in our lifetime there will be automated potato harvesting equipment,” Wisdon said.

At the company’s packing and shipping plant, there is more technology, such as a machine that scans the potatoes and discards imperfect or meager spuds. Wisdom said workers can program the machine to reject undesirable features, such as those green in color or with blemishes.

These “cull” potatoes don’t go to waste. Wisdom said they are shipped to a plant and turned into dehydrated potato.

After another machine separates potatoes by size — small, medium, large and extra large — and a second sort takes place, with workers inspecting potatoes at a detailed level.

Boxes are filled with potatoes and stuck with a label that tells the harvest date, the field where the potatoes were grown and other information. Wisdom said federal rules require that food can be traced back to the grower.

He estimates that the company fills about 5,000 boxes a day, which are picked up and transported by truck.

“It’s very easy, but very complicated,” Wisdom said. “Every (part of the process) is detailed, and there are thousands of decisions to get a potato from seed to fork.”

— Reporter Jacqueline Allison: jallison@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2145, Twitter: @Jacqueline_SVH

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