Red River Valley potatoes hit by disease for first time in decade
John Morten, who learned to fly as a boy of 17, provides a textbook example of how to keep potatoes safe from blight.
It's a big deal this year because, for the first time in a decade, late blight has been found in potato fields in the Red River Valley. The last time blight broke out in the valley, in 1999, it cost the potato industry in the region $125 million, said Neil Gudmestad, a potato plant pathologist at North Dakota State University who has been watching it closely.
Morten, 75, built up his family's crop-spraying business by buying military surplus helicopters, then adding parts he made himself.
He has been spraying potatoes in the valley for a half-century, and he's learned this, he says: If you spray potatoes for blight every year, every week during the growing season, you won't get blight.
He and his two sons, David and Jesse, and Jesse's son, Derek, spend their summers spraying the potato fields of Carl Hoverson, who grows 5,000 acres of irrigated spuds, mostly around Larimore.
They use helicopters because they do a better job than airplanes getting down near the many tree rows ringing fields around the "Shelterbelt Capital of the World" and are faster than ground sprayers, which can't always make it through muddy, irrigated fields, John Morten said.
Thanks to the way the Mortens do their work and his own vigilance, he's had no late blight this year in his fields, Hoverson said.
"But you've got to be a good manager and be willing to spend the money," Hoverson said.
As of Wednesday, the good news outweighs the bad news of potato blight in the Red River Valley, Gudmestad said.
He had just learned that the fungal disease possibly had been found in two more fields not far from where it was found two weeks ago in eight fields near Inkster. One field in South Dakota, on the North Dakota border, also was infected, he said.
Still, the potential cases are in the same area, he said, indicating that the epidemic is confined and waning. The entire outbreak involves three growers, he said.
Last fall, small potatoes that fell through the cracks during harvest in a spud field with blight made it through winter insulated under the heavy snow and wet soil, perhaps protected by a shelterbelt, he said. This spring, they sprouted "volunteer" potato plants after the corn crop was seeded and spread the blight spores, Gudmestad said.
"Some growers got complacent," he said, not wanting to name the three growers with blight.
"It was really a situation of them not applying fungicide on a timely basis."
Normally, he recommends spraying potato fields with fungicide every seven days; this year, he recommended every five days, as Hoverson Farms has done.
"We call them crop medicine," he said of such farm chemicals.
"These growers have invested tens of millions of dollars in their crops and they need to protect them."
The sunny, dry, breezy weather of late has helped stanch the blight, too, he said.
It's easy to understand why growers are tempted to spray less frequently.
At a cost of $15 to $25 per acre to buy and apply the fungicides each time, the dozen or more passes can cost $200 to $300 an acre.
The fact that potatoes are a high-value crop, with gross income potential of $1,000 to $2,500 per acre most years, makes it worthwhile.
Three generations of Mortens run the crop-spraying business with a couple of employees, using airplanes and helicopters.
Carl Hoverson is married to Sandy, one of John Morten's two daughters. She comes out to check on the spraying Wednesday morning.
Her sister, Marcy Meidinger, runs the office for Morten Helicopters.
Hoverson's son, Michael, just graduated from college and works as the agronomist for Hoverson Farms, monitoring fields daily.
Derek Morten, 18, runs the semi-truck with a trailer equipped with a mobile filling station that keeps his dad's helicopter loaded with fungicide and fuel, parked near the fields.
As Jesse Morten swoops in from spraying, landing on a platform on the truck bed, Derek hooks up a hose to pump the fungicide-water mix into the plastic 400-gallon tank sitting across the helicopter just behind the cockpit.
He also cleans the windshield for his dad, who holds the controls of the 1964 Bell "Huey," the kind used in the Vietnam War to ferry troops in and out of war zones. It first was owned by Norway's Air Force, and John Morten bought it in New England.
He, his brother David and their father built the 40-foot booms that spray a 70-foot swath at 70 mph, Jesse said. In an hour, he can spray 200 acres of spuds.
Jesse, 49, started flying when he was 12 and has been spraying crops since he was 19. "It's all I ever wanted to do," he said.
John Morten said he's always told his sons and the other pilots who have worked for him, "Before you get in an airplane or helicopter, you ask the Lord to protect you," he said. "And he does. We've never had a bad accident, or anyone get hurt."
Jesse had just started spraying with helicopters when he hit a power line that cut right through the Huey's bubble.
"I didn't see it till I hit, and I was going 60 mph," he said. "I actually felt an angel, felt the Lord, push me over. As my head went down, it went right across the top of my head.
"It took my hat and my headset right off my head and dug into the tank behind me, then it broke and came down and slapped me on the shoulder."
John, who also hit a power line once, shows visitors the still-dented tank on the helicopter parked in the back of the hangar.
John's brother, Jim, started the spraying business with him.
He was killed when his airplane hit bad weather in central North Dakota in 1991 on a trip to buy aircraft parts in Montana.
That hasn't stopped the new generation from picking up the business.
Derek began flying planes years ago and is on his way to spraying fields with a Huey.
"I'm learning," he said.