AMARILLO – When the research is done on the potato fields planted southwest of Bushland by Dr. Charlie Rush and his Texas AgriLife Research plant pathology crew, about 30 tons of produce are left in the field.
Rush doesn’t let it go to waste. He and his crew spend days digging the potatoes and then picking them up by hand to pile into High Plains Food Bank bins for distribution throughout the Panhandle.
This year’s crop of vegetable research netted 38,590 pounds of potatoes and about 1,155 pounds of squash, according to Broc Carter, director of communications with the High Plains Food Bank.
“Once we get it here, we do quality control on it and make sure it is fit for the public,” Carter said. “For some counties, we put them in 5-pound bags; but with other counties, we are able to send the bins of potatoes and bags and let the people bag them.”
The Food Bank covers the Panhandle from Perryton to Plainview going north to south and from the Oklahoma border to the New Mexico border going east to west, he said. Distributions are made to 171 agencies within 29 counties.
“Anything that is a perishable and doesn’t have a long life, we try to move out as fast as possible,” Carter said. “All of those potatoes were gone within a few weeks of being brought in.”
Rush said the potatoes were part of a 5-acre study on zebra chip, a disease of potatoes that can cause a yield quality concern to potatoes, but is not a food safety concern. This year, three different AgriLife Research scientists and Texas AgriLife Extension Service specialists had plots involving research on this disease.
“When the project work is complete, there are many pounds of perfectly good potatoes just laying out there and we don’t want them to go to waste,” Rush said.
The work is done through the AgriLife Research-led Specialty Crop Research Initiative titled, “Management of Zebra Chip to Enhance Profitability and Sustainability of U.S. Potato Production.” The initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture, is led by Rush, and nationwide has a team of 27 researchers and specialists.
In addition, the collaboration includes potato producers, such as CSS Farms of Dalhart, who loaned Rush’s team a digger this year which allowed them to harvest many more of the potatoes, benefiting food bank produce recipients.
This is the third year Rush’s project has made donations to the Food Bank, with this year’s donation considerably higher than the previous 5,600 pounds of potatoes from a 3-acre plot dug by hand.
Carter said perishables such as the potatoes and squash are difficult for the general public to donate, especially in large quantities, so this is a unique product that’s very much appreciated by the food bank recipients.
“The reason we like what this program does is we have enough for a whole area and not just one family,” Carter said. “That’s what these large amounts of produce from AgriLife Research do for us; everybody gets some.”