The ballet of the "Central Sands" potato harvest

Portage County is the state's leader in potato production, Wisconsin is number three in the nation, and they owe that leadership to the "Central Sands" soil of the region and a lot of hard-working people. This is a big-time business with little room for amateurs. In early October, we observed the Dombrowski Farms potato harvest near Shantytown, just a stone's throw north of Portage County, and the Plover River Farms just outside Stevens Point. If you're a kid at heart, watching all these big machines do their ballet out in the fields is more exciting than a 62-year old six year old boy can handle!

November 10, 2006


Pass the potatoes Ma! How many times have you heard that? Back in early October we saw an ad in the local newspaper about Wisconsin potatoes. It said:

"Hi. I'm Justin Isherwood, a Wisconsin potato farmer from Plover here to remind you that it's harvest time for Wisconsin potatoes, fresh and healthy, in more than 25 varieties, russets, fingerlings, reds, yellows, even purples!"


Well, we did not know it was harvest time, we live close to Plover, so off we went. We had no clue what we were doing, so we just headed down there to see what we could see. We had a great day.

We spent some time a bit northeast of Stevens Point in Portage County visiting two potato farms, that of Dombrowski Farms of Shantytown, Marathon County, very close to the Portage County line, and Plover River Farms, close to Stevens Point in northeastern Portage County. Plover River Farms is a large and well-known operation, while Dombrowski Farms, owned by Tony and Elaine Dombrowski, is smaller but just as hard working.

If you want to talk about potatoes in Wisconsin, you've first got to talk about a geologic region known as the "Central Sands." We want to show you two maps in succession. The first will be the map of the five Geographic Provinces of the state, followed by a map that depicts what some call a "geologic region," others call an "eco-region." Our web site is founded on the Geographic Provinces, so we want you to see both maps and compare them.

First, the map of Wisconsin’s five Geographic Provinces. Focus on the Central Plain Province.


Next, a map showing the state's "Geologic or Eco-Regions," presented by the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin.


Broadly speaking, the Central Sands region occupies much, but not all, of the Central Plain Geographic Province, essentially the center of the province, and the center of the state, partly in the Driftless Area, partly on its edges. We have pointed the arrow at the approximate are of the farms we visited in southern Marathon and northern Portage counties.

Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) describes the Central Sands region this way:

"The Central Sand Plains Ecological Landscape, located in central Wisconsin, occurs on a flat, sandy lake plain, and supports agriculture, forestry, recreation, and wildlife management. The Ecological Landscape formed in and around what was once Glacial Lake Wisconsin, which contained glacial meltwater extending over 1.1 million acres at its highest stage. Soils are primarily sandy lake deposits, some with silt-loam loess caps. Sandstone buttes carved by rapid drainage of the glacial lake, or by wave action when they existed as islands in the lake, are distinctive features of this landscape."

While visiting the Wisconsin farms, we never thought we'd be taken to the Andes in South America, but indeed we were. The Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association tells us that potato growing actually started in the Peruvian Andes, at heights of 4,000 - 6,000 ft and higher (up to 10,000 ft) on a plateau today called the Titicaca Plateau that stretches across part of Peru and Bolivia. They are said to have over 7,000 varieties of potatoes in the Andes. This plateau is also referred to as the "Altiplano."


In the center of this NASA photo of Peru and Bolivia taken in June 1996, you see Lake Titicaca. It lies in the high Titicaca Plateau of the Andes Mountains, which you see in the lower part of the photo. People in the region call this the "Altiplano." Presented by Google. A map of the area is shown next, presented by MSN Encarta.



The Altiplano. Presented by flickr.

We commend a study of the Alitplano to you, especially students. We suggest you find the similarities and difference between it and the Central Sands of Wisconsin; there are plenty of both.

Certainly Wisconsin's cool northern temperatures match those of these parts of Peru. The association adds:

"The rapid warm-up, low density and lack of organic residue of Wisconsin’s glacial soil allow for less plant disease and vigorous plant growth."

Potatoes like deep, well-drained sandy or silt loam soils the best, and that's what the Central Sands gives them. Loam means soil with roughly an equal proportion of sand, silt and clay.


Principal potato producing regions in the United States and Canada. Source: Potato Health Management, APS Press. Presented by Oregon State University.

Wisconsin produces about 7 percent of total US production, behind Washington (21 percent) and Idaho (28 percent), with over 80,000 acres in production. The states of Wisconsin, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, North Dakota, Minnesota, Maine and California produce nearly 75% of the total crop.


Portage county is the leader in Wisconsin, followed by Waushara, Langlade and Adams counties in that order. Why Langlade County (red arrow) is in the mix in the number three position merits further study. It is outside the "Central Sands" geologic region and outside the Central Plain Geographic Province.

In 2003, Wisconsin produced almost 3.3 billion pounds of potatoes, of which about 1.1 billion came from Portage County. As you saw in earlier maps, we are focused on the very northeastern edge of the Central Sands area.

During our exploration in October, we concentrated on the harvest, not the growing, because of the time of year. So our report here mainly talks to the harvest, but we do want to touch on the growing.


Diagram of a potato plant. For simplicity, one main stem is shown. Productive plants may have two or more main stems. Graphic courtesy of Alberta, Food and Rural Development, Canada. Presented by Government of Manitoba, Canada.

The potato tuber is what we're interested in. It is an enlarged portion of an underground stem. One source has said that "potatoes grow underground, but are actually swollen stems, not roots." The swollen stem is the tuber.

Sprouts develop from the eyes of seed tubers and grow upward to emerge from the soil. Potatoes are not grown from seeds. Instead, special potatoes called "seeded potatoes" are planted in the ground, either in carefully cut pieces or whole. These pieces of potato grow stems and roots from the "eye."

Roots then start to develop. Leaves and branch stems develop and roots continue to build. Tubers begin to develop and flowers will emerge at the top of the stem. Tuber cells then start to expand as they receive nutrients and become the dominant site for carbohydrates and other nutrients. In the final stages, the vines turn yellow and lose leaves, and the vines die. Tuber growth slows and tuber dry matter content reaches a maximum; the tuber skins set and the harvest is ready. Interestingly, the potato that is harvested is about 80 percent water and 20 percent solids.


Here's what a potato field that is flowering looks like in the summer (presented by the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association).


We said we were going to focus on the harvest. We also told you the vines would turn yellow and die. Here's a photo of a field at that stage, ready for harvest. Here's a zoom shot giving you a better feel for what the vines look like at this stage.


Let's start our review of the harvest. We were lucky that the "head-rigger" over at Plover River Farms pointed us to one of his fields under harvest and gave us permission to watch, with one proviso --- stay out of the way! Being good soldiers, we complied.


The yellow machine is what's known as a windrower harvester, in this case drawn by a tractor. Bear in mind this is a shot taken from a distance. That harvester is six feet high, 14 feet wide, and 29 feet long! She weighs almost 14,000 lbs. You need at least 125 horses to pull her. She can handle four rows of potatoes at a time.

Let's move in a little closer. Now remember, your editor might be in his early sixties, but he's a boy at heart, and has never seen such machinery, so excuse him if he gets carried away here!


Here's a closer view. The operator was just ready to enter the field when the harvester got jammed by a rock. The operator had to dislodge that from the machine to get her going. He wrestled with it for a bit. Take a look at that rock he dislodged. So while the soil might be "sands," this particular plot had some rock in it and they are a nuisance. We will come back to the rock issue later.

Also note the line-up of machinery in the background. This is a hup-two-three operation, as we'll show you in a moment.

Finally, note the belts below the machine. We'll give you closer shots of these shortly.

Before going on, this machine is a Double L Manufacturing 851 Windrower. The company has a nice description of the machine at its web site. We'll be referring to her as the "851" for short.

Those belts we mentioned are belted chains. Let's get a closer look at them.


The company says these belts run throughout the machine. You can use the number "851" from the larger photo to get your bearings, but in this zoomer we can see three belts, the one on the far right (front) receiving potatoes from the digger and the latter putting them back on the ground out the rear side, which we will show you below. So dug up in the front, conveyor-belted to the rear, and kicked out the rear section back on to the ground. Why back on the ground? Hang in there; that's where the ballet comes in!


This is the center chain belt.


The aft belt looks different; first the design appears different, and second it looks like there are two belts aft. The forward belt looked much the same as the center one. We'll leave it to you blossoming engineers to figure out why.


This is the forward section of the harvester, showing a "true floating digger bed with gauge wheel." Let's get a closer look at those floating diggers. Remember, we had to stay out of the way, so we couldn't climb under there! We're dealing with zoomers of the shots we took from a distance.


The red arrow to the left points to one of the floating diggers. It looks like there is another one visible (arrow to the right). There might be more. Being amateurs, we would expect four diggers to handle four rows. But we have noted that the model 852, which does only two rows, has only one digger, so we're not sure.


You are now looking at the aft section of the harvester. If you look closely, you see the belts to the lower right conveying the dug-up potatoes to the rear, and at photo's center, you can see the potatoes accumulating. There is some kind of flap covering them. If you look closely at the bottom of the flap, you can see potatoes falling out. Let's zoom in more.


What's happening here is that the potatoes are being kicked out by another belt below a covering flap and falling in line on the ground. If you look very closely in the lower left portion of this photo, you can see how the potatoes are lined up.


This is a much better look at how the potatoes are lined up. You see the 851 making her way through the field and leaving a line of potatoes in her wake, with most of the vines you saw early on cut.


A closer look. Note how the potatoes are lined up in a bit of a trough. There are some good lookin' potatoes in there!

Okay, the potatoes have been dug up, most of the vines have been cut and gathered, and potatoes are on top of the ground instead of under it. What now coach?


Remember an earlier shot we showed you where we mentioned the machinery lined up behind the 851? The 851 is out in the field and has already done a bunch of digging. Now this bad-boy kicks into action.

This is a Lenco Pull-Type Potato Harvester, a four row jobbie, we believe. With the 851 having done her job, this Lenco harvester shoots into action along with a line of trucks that were waiting right behind her. As a former military man, watching all this happen real-time was like watching the Army's heavy armor moving across the battlefield in perfect synchronization; but it was also kind of like a ballet, all this heavy machinery moving working together, following a script.


The Lenco follows the track of the 851. We have seen a close-in video of this guy at work, provided by Lenco on-line. It looked to us like it scrapes, almost sweeps the ground below pulling in those rows of potatoes, along with a bunch of other stuff including left-over dead vines. All this stuff then hits those belts you see here in the front and makes its way to the trucks which are traveling along the side of this monster, almost like an Air Force "wing-man."


This guy has just turned his Lenco into the field and is ready to go to work. As soon as he gets going, a truck will swing in behind him and to his right, eventually pulling up to his side.


Here's the formation we were talking about earlier. The 851 "flying lead" is digging up the potatoes and laying them down in nice neat rows lying in a slight trough. He's followed by the Lenco sweeping them up and conveying them into a truck "flying on his starboard wing." When that truck is full, another pulls in to replace him. Yes, a ballet of heavy machinery. We want to alert you to the lower right quadrant of this photo, so we'll zoom in.


We point out that a row of potatoes dug up by the 851 is far to the right of the Lenco. We could not get close enough to see how many rows the 851 lays down, we suspect two, one right, one left, but in any event, he does his work to the right of the Lenco. That explains why the Lenco and truck guys let the 851 driver go first and get some work done before they kick into action. Now you want the Lenco, not the truck, driving over these potatoes, that's for sure.


Here's what the field looks like when these harvesters and truckers are done.


Here's a different view of another field we saw where the potatoes had been harvested. We want to draw your attention to the irrigation machine's wheels just left of center. If you squint real hard, you can see what looks like an elongated pile of stuff going horizontally across the photo. Your first instinct might be to say those are potatoes left behind. Not so. Let's zoom in.


Those are rocks. The 851 digs up the potatoes and rocks, and the Lenco scarfs them, has a way of determining they are rocks, and lays them down in rows. Another group of machines then comes along to pick up the rocks, convey them into trucks, and dump them elsewhere. We saw trucks carrying loads of rocks and dumping them into large piles out of the way. It would be interesting to know what they do with those rocks.

It turns out rocks in the soil have been a problem in this region for some time. While the soil is good for potatoes, the last great glacier in this area left behind many stones and boulders. If you go back to our map of the geographic provinces, you will see that this location happens to be on the edge of the Driftless Area, which means it is on the edge of where the glacier ended. Remember, the glacier did not go into the Driftless Area. Since this area was covered by the leading edge of the glacier, it would stand to reason the glacier would drop a lot of rock here as it receded, came back, receded etc.

Early-on, these rocks made the soil hard to work. In the "old days," that made the land cheap to buy, which in turn made it easier to buy for immigrant families from Poland, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Poles and Germans were among the first and most populous peoples to settle in this section of Portage County.

There's one other highlight we want to show on the harvest.


We found some potatoes left behind. This harvest is over. We walked through the field, and the temptation was almost overwhelming to start picking up potatoes to take home. We decided, however, not to pick them up because that would be stealing; the land was not ours, nor were these potatoes. It was a shame because there were some real beauties in there.

We are going to shift gears now. We've got the potatoes dug up, swept up, and loaded into trucks. Now we have to get the truck loads to storage. To show this, we are going to move away from Plover River Farms, which is a very large operation, to Dombrowski Farms, a smaller operation, over in Shantytown.


Plover River Farms storage area at Music Drive and CH J, Stevens Point, Portage County. Aerial photo courtesy of Mapquest.


Dombrowski Farms storage area, CH C-J just east of Willow Road, Shantytown, Marathon County. Aerial photo courtesy of Mapquest. The top arrow points to a gabled storage building that we observed being filled with potatoes; the lower arrow points to a quonset hut type building that we assume is for storage as well.

The day we were traveling around this region, the highways were filled with potato trucks, making their journeys to the fields being harvested and then back to the various storage areas. In this case, we are at Dombrowski Farm's storage area.


As a first order of business, we'll introduce you to Elaine Dombrowski, one of the owners of the farms, married to Tony.


This is son, Troy Dombrowski. Both Elaine and Troy were very kind to explain to us what was going on and let us walk around and take photos. Its worth noting that here, as well as at Plover River Farms, everyone was working at a brisk pace, concentrating on their jobs. That's because they are hard-working people. It's also because the ballet is still in progress, at the harvest fields, and at the storage areas.

Truck after truck arrives filled with potatoes, and these drivers, probably paid by the number of loads they deliver, don't want to hang around. They want their loads unloaded, and then beat feet back to the fields to get more. So at the Dombrowski Farm storage area, they worked to get the truck unloaded, and, while we were there, just as they did, the next full truck arrived. The ballet!

Troy is working to the rear of a Double L Manufacturing "Self-Unloading Truckbed" filled with potatoes from the harvest. Once again, Double L has a nice description of these trucks. The truck at Dombrowksi's was not as big as the one shown on the Double L website, but the web site will help you anyway. You can get these trucks in any two foot increment length between 16 and 30 ft.


We'll return for just a moment to the Plover River harvest because we have a better view of the whole truck from there. The sides of the truck topside are vertical to the ground to gain maximum volume for the potatoes, but the bottom sides angle inward. You lose volume with this design, but the potatoes will flow out nicely when the truck gets to storage. You can see this in a close-up of the Double L truck used at Dombrowskis' in this next shot.


The yellow arrow points to the section where the truckbed slants inward.


The yellow arrow here is pointing to what is called the "dog leg tail" which is designed to provide smooth discharge of the potatoes. There 's a lot of potatoes in a fully loaded truck, the load is heavy, the truck is designed to cause the potatoes to want to roll out the back, so you need a well designed mechanism here to avoid bruising the potatoes and cutting up their skins any more than has already been done during the harvest. You can see the potatoes coming out. Below them is a set of rollers that help that flow along. The potatoes, in turn, are flowing off the truck onto a conveyor system that will separate the large from the small and get the larger ones into a storage shed, the smaller ones into a waiting truck.


This is a view from the other side. The self-unloading truckbed is to the right. You can see the potatoes moving up a short ramp and on to a conveyor belt. That's Troy's head peeking out on the right side. As soon as the truckbed has discharged his load and moved the potatoes to the Dombrowskis' conveyor belt, he takes off back to the harvest to get another load.


The mechanism in the center is an interesting one. It separates out the small from the large potatoes. The yellow arrow points to the belt with a couple small potatoes on it. Those fall into the green bin to the left and go up another conveyor into a waiting truck, as you see in the next photo.


We did not talk about what happens to these smaller potatoes, but we assume they go to other destinations for some kind of food processing.


This is a good shot of the larger potatoes coming off the truck and onto Dombrowskis' belt system. The worker here is picking out the bad ones and small ones missed by the automated system.


While we were there, two workers were picking out the bad ones. You can see how the conveyor belt heads straight into the shed, which is a pretty good sized shed. You also see the quonset hut building to the left.


Elaine is at the end of the line, making sure the potatoes get up the conveyor belt to the "pile" and adjusting the belt mechanisms so they roll the potatoes off into the pile where she wants them. In this instance, Elaine has the conveyor belt dumping them way to the rear and off to the left. The yellow arrow points to the belt stretching toward the left. You can see the more recently harvested potatoes are on top; they are a darker color, more damp than the others.


Here you can see the belt mechanism that we pointed to in the previous photo, putting the newly harvested potatoes coming off the line to the far left. It looks to us like there is clearance to keep swinging that belt mechanism to the right to add more over there. We do not believe they will pile the potatoes above the wooden trusses forming the roof.


And there they are coming off the line for their first storage.

We always point out that in these kinds of businesses, you've got to know what you're doing to make a profit. There is science and know-how involved in all this. Let's talk about storage just a bit as an example.

Those potatoes, more properly called "tubers," are alive. They are living organisms. As a result, they produce heat and they lose moisture. Remember, we said that potatoes are 80 percent water and only 20 percent solids. So if you're not careful, you're going to lose a bundle of water and end up with ugly, un-marketable shrunken potatoes. Throughout, the potatoes have to go through a curing process.

The greatest shrinkage occurs after harvest and before curing is complete. Despite precautions during the harvest, the potatoes do take a bit of a beating. Wounds speed the escape of moisture, and, of course, can lead to disease. Mother Nature doesn't fool around, though, and takes all this into account.

There is a natural process of healing known as suberization; suberlin is a natural waxy substance present in the cell walls of the potato's corky tissues that forms to mend the wound. Indeed initial storage seeks to give the potatoes time to heal, especially important if the potatoes are to be stored for a long time. Suberization prospers with the right temperatures, so temperature control is crucial while they are in storage.

The most common type storage buildings used are concrete, wood stud and pole frame, and quonset hut. They need to be designed so they can withstand not only the weather outside, but the force and weight of the potatoes inside. Ventilation is critical to maintain the right temperature, relative humidity, and air quality.

Well, we won't get too deep into this, other than to remind you that there is plenty of science involved. The Government of Manitoba has a comprehensive and understandable description of all this on line. We commend it to you.

We also commend a fun web site to your attention, that of the Potato Museum On-Line.

And, oh yes, ma pass the potatoes!