Growing potatoes in Kansas can be profitable: Inside one potato farmer’s operation

Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News
Esmerelda Gutierrez sorts through potatoes at Southwest Fresh Potato in Hugoton, Kansas.

HUGOTON — Although Kansas is not up there with Idaho, Maine or Washington state, potato crops can still thrive in the Sunflower State. With nationwide sales of slightly less than $4 billion, this fiber-rich vegetable is grown on slightly more than 900,000 acres in around 30 states, Kansas being one of them. 

Josh Jorde, a potato farmer in southwest Kansas, grew up picking potatoes with his dad in New Mexico. Even though Kansas does not have too many large-scale potato farms, according to Jorde, the climate in Kansas works for this starch.

"My dad is the son of a North Dakota seed potato farmer," Jorde said. "My grandfather worked for a company that sold seed potatoes."

Jorde not only grows the potatoes, but he harvests, washes and polishes them as well. With a mixture of manual labor and machines, Jorde's wholesale potato company, Southwest Fresh Potato in Hugoton, Kansas, sorts through thousands of pounds of potatoes each day, placing the washed and polished product in dozens of 2,000 pound tote bags ready for delivery.

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Josh Jorde, the owner of Southwest Fresh Potato in Hugoton, Kansas, holds up some of his recently picked and packaged red potatoes.

According to Jorde, potato season went well, with lots of moisture in June and early July. By late-July, many of the potatoes were picked.

"We plant in March and harvest around the 4th of July," Jorde said. "We like to be done in August."

The crop's growing season is different dependent upon the state. In northern Maine, up in Aroostook County - known locally as The County - they close schools for potato harvest sometime from late September to early October, relying on students to help with the picking. This same break occurs in portions of eastern Idaho.

According to Potatoes USA, the marketing organization for 2,500 potato farming families in the U.S., potato sales increased in dollars by 3% from July 2020 through June 2021. About one-third of the potatoes in the U.S. are not processed. Like Jorde's red and gold varieties, they head to restaurants and grocery stores. The others become chips, frozen french fries, or are dehydrated or canned.

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Bags of recently picked and packaged red potatoes ready to get shipped out at Southwest Fresh Potato in Hugoton, Kansas.

Of the potatoes exported, according to the National Potato Council, about 60% of them leave the U.S. as frozen French fries, with Japan, Mexico and Canada being the largest potato importers. 

According to the USDA, Idaho has 310,000 acres dedicated to this vegetable and brings in about 16 billion pounds, while Washington and Virginia have about 160,000 acres each. Maine, on the other hand, has slightly more than 50,000 acres.

Although Kansas makes up a small amount of acres – a little more than 3,000 – Jorde and other potato farmers in Kansas are keeping busy with this in-demand crop. 

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Trucks scoop up potatoes on Josh Jorde's potato farm in Hugoton, Kansas.

According to Kansas State University, during the late 1930s, commercial plantings for potatoes were concentrated in Wyandotte, Leavenworth, Johnson, Douglas, Jefferson, Shawnee and Riley counties. Not too many potatoes were grown in western Kansas at the time.

Jorde said he is able to keep workers in his plant, but the crew on the farm is more difficult to find. He said sometimes local farmers come along and help out. Most of the potatoes are picked with the help of trucks.

"We really like the reward of our work," Jorde said. "We like producing potatoes and doing better each year."