Residents of Barnesville, Minn. (pop. 2,108), have a close and long-standing love affair with their celebrated spud. Potatoes have been a major crop in the Red River Valley for more than a century.
Green leafy potato plants shrivel to brown vines by fall, producing the 16 varieties of potatoes raised in the Barnesville vicinity, ranging from red, white and yellow to blue. “We harvest about 38 million pounds of potatoes a year,” boasts Karen Lauer, executive director of the Barnesville Economic Development Authority.
The Minnesota portion of the Red River Valley annually yields some 1.9 billion pounds of potatoes from 56,000 acres, says Duane Maatz, president of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association. In fact, the Red River Valley region of Minnesota and North Dakota ranks third in the nation in potato production, behind Idaho and Washington.
Brian Halverson’s family has produced certified seed potatoes near Barnesville since the 1940s. As a seed grower, Halverson cares more about eyes than size. Digging up hills of modestly sized red-skinned spuds, Halverson explains that big potatoes fill the sack without yielding more eyes. “We want to get 1,100 eyes per 100 pounds of potatoes,” he says.
In May, Halverson plants 10 or 11 varieties of potatoes on 150 acres. From his fields, he’ll harvest between 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of tubers per acre in mid-September to early October.
At the Mike Layton Co. Potato Wash Plant in Barnesville, about 350 truckloads of spuds get washed, sorted and shipped out from August to April. Owner Mike Layton buys and sells potatoes for table use, operates a truck brokerage and grows potatoes, too. Fresh red potatoes have been good to market the last three seasons, says Layton, who gets about $20 for a 100-pound bag of baby reds.
A few blocks away, the K.W. Christensen and Sons Warehouse, run by Wes and Etta Christensen, sells potatoes for seed as well as bags of plump tubers heading home to be mashed, baked, boiled or fried. Seed potatoes must pass three state inspections and can also be sold for consumption, but potatoes that are not inspected by the state cannot be sold for seed.
Etta previously served as secretary for the town’s annual Potato Days, a celebration started in the late 1930s. This year’s festival is scheduled Aug. 27 and 28. This unpretentious, homespun gathering features potato-related festivities and bags of potatoes and garden produce for sale. In a feverishly paced contest, pickers harvest spuds the old-fashioned way—on hands and knees, dumping full pails of potatoes into potato sacks. Then, people with work-callused hands and strong arms compete in manual potato sack sewing, stacking and tossing, amid good-natured razzing and camaraderie.
In addition to preserving the region’s potato-growing heritage, the celebration bridges the gap between city and rural people. Everyone pitches in to put on a potato hors d’oeuvre cookoff, a potato peeling contest, and other events. In the food court, plates brim with potato dumplings, potato sausage, twice baked potatoes, french fries, and even potato chip cookies. Some people wear clothing made from potato sacks, and everyone celebrates potatoes nonstop for two days. It’s spudtacular.
For more information on Barnesville and Potato Days, call (800) 525-4901 or log on to www.potatodays.com.