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Potato production and soil health: Insights from U.S. potato growers

This article was written and submitted to Potato News Today by Jorge Luis Alonso G.

Researchers at the University of Idaho and the USDA/ERS conducted a study to identify soil health practices that are acceptable to farmers. The study considered several factors, including their production systems, land management, and farmers’ attitudes toward these practices. A scientific paper was published in the journal Farming System, Volume 1, Issue 3, October 2023.

The following article is a summary of the results.

Introduction

The potato industry is a major sector in the United States, accounting for 15% of vegetable farm sales, and globally potatoes are the third most important crop for human consumption. Production has largely shifted to industrialized systems, with China as the top producer, followed by India, Russia, the U.S., and Ukraine. In the U.S., potatoes cover approximately 450,000 acres and generate $4 billion annually. However, intensive farming practices such as tillage and fumigation are degrading soil health, impacting both ecosystems and farm profitability.

Soil degradation in potato production is mainly due to soil disturbing practices and heavy use of chemicals for pest control. While these practices increase yields, they negatively affect soil and water quality, wildlife habitat, and human health. The susceptibility of potatoes to various pathogens results in significant agricultural losses worldwide. Management strategies include crop rotation, fumigation and the use of disease-resistant varieties, with ongoing research focusing on the use of healthy soils to reduce losses.

Potato Farmers’ Willingness to Adopt New Practices

Potatoes typically produce higher returns per hectare than other crops, despite higher production costs. There is growing interest in research on healthy soils and sustainable practices, but their adoption depends on farmer acceptance. A survey and discrete choice experiment (DCE) were conducted to assess potato farmers’ willingness to adopt new practices that improve soil health and profitability.

Previous studies using DCE in agriculture have shown farmers’ willingness to pay for drought-tolerant crops and their preference for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) based on profit margins. Research also shows that farmers are more likely to adopt environmentally friendly practices with increased flexibility, certainty, and higher incentive payments. The DCE conducted avoids focusing on specific practices, instead emphasizing factors such as “pest threats” and recognizing the variability in the practical benefits of soil health practices.

Recent research examines the economics of cover crops and conservation tillage systems, with mixed results regarding profitability. Factors such as attitudes, land ownership, and willingness to experiment influence the adoption of soil health practices. The current DCE aims to identify soil health practices that are acceptable to farmers, taking into account their production systems, land management, and attitudes toward these practices.

Rooted decisions: Potato Growers and Soil Health

The study investigates the adoption of soil health practices in potato production, focusing on farmer willingness and economic viability. Although unable to compare to national data, the survey indicates that potato growers, mainly medium-to-large scale, derive significant income from off-farm activities. The sample, skewed towards Idaho growers, who dominate U.S. potato production, may not fully represent national trends. Concerns include the overrepresentation of fresh pack market producers and ambiguous categorization in sales data.

Land tenure patterns reveal most potato producers lease land, impacting their investment in soil health, especially with short-term leases. Farmers prioritize practices that integrate seamlessly with existing ones and yield quick economic returns. Capital constraints are a notable barrier, with over 40% of growers citing this.

The study aims to guide future research by understanding growers’ willingness to adopt new practices, considering both private and public benefits. Recommended practices include reduced tillage, modified crop rotations, decreased fumigation, and the use of green manures. However, no research has yet quantified the necessary returns for adopting these practices.

Growers are generally reluctant to adopt practices increasing irrigation or fertilizer use, due to high costs and limited water availability, particularly in Idaho. Additionally, they avoid practices that heighten pest risks. The study acknowledges potential biases in its methodology and treats willingness-to-pay estimates cautiously.

Conclusion

This research sheds light on U.S. potato growers’ attitudes toward adopting new soil health practices, emphasizing their focus on economic impact. It shows that potato growers prioritize net returns and are reluctant to adopt practices that may increase costs or risks without a clear financial benefit. The study identifies key barriers to adopting new practices, including complexity, capital constraints, and uncertain benefits.

Overcoming these barriers is essential to promoting soil health practices. This work is critical for developing strategies to promote soil health and profitability in potato production, as understanding growers’ preferences and constraints is essential for the successful implementation of these practices.

Source: Maas, A., Fuller, K. B., Hatzenbuehler, P., & McIntosh, C. (2023). An exploration of preferences for soil health practices in potato production. Farming System, 1(3), 100054. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.farsys.2023.100054
Photo: Credit Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

Editor & Publisher: Lukie Pieterse


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