Any way you slice it, dice it, mash it or fry it, Americans love their spuds — so much that 75 percent of potato enthusiasts consider themselves potato lovers. To help celebrate this popular vegetable, the National Potato Promotion Board has deemed February “National Potato Lovers Month.” There’s no doubt potatoes remain a relished dish on the national table and with good reason. The average 5.3-ounce spud has only 110 calories, contains zero fat and zero cholesterol, 45 percent daily value of Vitamin C, nearly two times as much potassium as a banana, fiber and vitamin B6. Survey results confirm that potatoes are “America’s favorite vegetable.” In fact, Americans consume nearly 143 pounds of potatoes per person per year. With a huge selection of varieties and colors to choose from, the favorites are russets, round whites, long whites and round reds.

Washington state potato growers rank first in per-acre yield of potatoes, far above other potato producing states and countries, and 57 percent more potatoes per acre than any other potato producing state. Potatoes represent Washington state’s third largest agricultural crop, with a farm gate value of over $690 million and a total value to the state of over 3.5 billion. Last year, Washington growers raised 145,000 acres of potatoes with an average yield of 61,000 pounds per acre. That works out to a little less than 8.5 billion pounds of potatoes! If these potatoes were packed in standard 50-pound cartons laid end-to-end, they would stretch over 55,000 miles. That’s more than twice around the earth!

Eighty-seven percent of the Washington potato crop is sold to processors who transform them into golden fries, crunchy chips and creamy mashed potatoes. At least nine out of every 10 Washington potatoes are marketed outside of Washington state, with a significant portion of these going to overseas markets. Japan purchases about 65 percent of the french fries made from Washington potatoes that are exported each year.

Pound for pound, potatoes are still one of the least expensive items in the produce department. One serving — a medium (5.3- ounce) potato, will set you back only about 25 cents.

Our coastal climate is ideal for growing potatoes. In fact, not too many years ago, potatoes were a major agricultural crop in Grays Harbor, Thurston and Lewis counties with well over 1,000 acres in production. Grays Harbor continues to be recognized for its production of the prized Yellow Finn variety grown on the Lubbe farm just east of Montesano. Potatoes are even an excellent backyard crop in maritime zones of Pacific County.

Potatoes germinate and emerge best when daytime soil temperatures are consistently higher than 50 degrees F. Although it’s much too early to plant now, many seed catalogs list an enticing assortment of varieties for planting later this spring. Remember, you will need eight to 10 pounds of seed potatoes for each 100 feet of row. To figure out potential yield, multiply the pounds planted by 10. So, for example, if you planted five pounds of seed potatoes, you should get about 50 pounds of potatoes. Many gardeners are able to bring in much higher yields due to good soil and great growing conditions.

Seed pieces should be planted five to six inches deep, about 10 to 12 inches apart in rows 30 to 36 inches wide. Small seed potatoes can be planted whole, but larger ones should first be cut into pieces with at least one eye or recessed dormant bud. The pieces should be blocky and 1-1/2 to 2 ounces in weight. If you cut each piece to the size of a large ice cube it will be about the right weight. Larger ones produce plants that yield a high number of medium to small potatoes. Smaller ones will yield fewer, but larger potatoes. While it may be tempting to plant smaller pieces in the hope of getting big potatoes, stick to the middle-sized pieces. Small pieces have less starch stored up to nourish the developing plant, so their food supply is quickly exhausted. Larger pieces have more energy to offer, which can help a young plant recover from early frost damage.

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