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Potatoes are “America’s favorite vegetable” for more than five years in a row now, with the average American consuming about 113 pounds (about 51 kilos) of spuds a year. So if water damages crops in Idaho, the whole country will feel the effects. Well, at least those of us who love potatoes!

A study by Potatoes USA, a marketing organization for 2,000 commercial potato growers in the country, found that 80% of Americans eat potatoes every week, with one-third of them doing so for a minimum of three times a week. Americans love their spuds at home mashed, baked or roasted, while they prefer to eat ‘em outside as fries, chips, or hash browns.  

In addition to their use at home and in restaurants, potatoes are also used as animal feed, re-used as seed tubers for planting, and sold on the fresh market. 

The big demand is only equaled by the huge commercial potato production in the country.  While the crop is grown commercially in 30 states, Idaho is the top producer, followed by Washington. In 2021, the Gem State produced 12.07 billion pounds (around 5.5 billion kilos) of potatoes, while the Evergreen State harvested 9.04 billion pounds (about 4 billion kilos), according to the National Potato Council. The sector has also provided about 700,000 jobs and over $100.9 billion to the U.S. economy in the same year. 

Dubbed the Idaho Potato Belt by NASA, a strip of low-lying land across southern Idaho, in the Snake River Plain, produces nearly one-third of the country’s potatoes. Most of these (94%) are russet potato varieties like Ranger, Burbank and Western. The rest are niche varieties, such as fingerlings, golds, and reds. 

Thanks to fertile volcanic soils and a great climate for potato growth, Idaho is now one of the largest producers of potatoes in the world. Idaho potatoes are exported to Mexico and Canada as well as Malaysia and Singapore. 

Spuds are valuable crops, but what happens to them when there is a flood?

Potatoes After a Flood

In 2023, farmers in the Northeast suffered a disastrous blow when storms poured up to two months’ worth of rain in the region. The result was major flooding, which came at a bad time for farmers. The timing did not allow for early replanting nor for a late replanting. One potato farm lost 300 acres (121 hectares) of the crop just weeks from harvest time. 

“The loss of the crops is a very tangible way to measure the flood, but the loss of the work is hard to measure,” said Micah Barritt, one of five co-owners of Diggers’ Mirth Collective Farm in Burlington, Vermont, told PBS’ Nation. “We’re all grieving and heartbroken because of this.”

When there’s a flood, two things can happen to potatoes. One, they can get washed away, and two, they can suffer damage due to being waterlogged. 

“When water is rising, that’s the big concern because you get a lot of standing water and the soil starts to loosen up, turns into mud and the mud starts to wash away. When dirt and soil washes away, crops do as well,” said David Varner from the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

Waterlogged Potatoes

Floods will have different effects on different crops. Rice, for instance, doesn’t have any problem with being soaked in water. However, others like potatoes and dry beans are intolerant to being waterlogged even just after one day.

Potatoes, in particular, can become asphyxiated or suffocated if their tubers are soaked in stagnant water for over 24 to 36 hours, according to the North Dakota State University. This can open the plants to various damaging conditions. 

  • Blackheart disease

Have you ever opened a seemingly good or normal potato (or other fruit or crop) and got surprised by how dark it is inside? This is what’s known as blackheart disease. 

It is a common problem with potatoes during wet years. Blackheart disease occurs due to a lack of oxygen, so they can also appear in compacted soils, which restricts air movement, or during storage and shipping, especially when spuds are packed too close together. 

After a flood, a water film can form around the potato tuber which decreases the plant’s ability to diffuse oxygen. This process is significantly slowed down through water than through the soil. Because oxygen has a hard time traveling inside the plant, its interior tissues begin to die and discolor. You’ll find the inside of the potato has turned black, purple or brown. 

If farmers unwittingly used a potato tuber with blackheart disease as seed, the plant will have “lower vigor and stance since tuber starch reduced in bulk and may not support emergence,” according to the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

  • Opening of lenticels or enlarged lenticels

Lenticels are small openings or pores in the potato’s skin that facilitate the exchange of gas between the plant and the atmosphere. In other words, lenticels help the potato breathe.

“The tubers have adapted to grow below the ground where there is less air available,” Gregory Porter, professor of crop ecology and management at the University of Maine, told Fox 23 Maine. “When the soil gets saturated there is less [oxygen] and more water, and the common response from the potatoes is that the lenticels will enlarge.”

These enlarged lenticels manifest as raised white spots on the potato’s skin. They will be more evident in some variety than others. Enlarged lenticels will affect the storage life of potatoes negatively. But, it could also lead to something worse. 

“When they are in storage, you may start to see infections and darkened spots on the potatoes,” Porter said. “That is the bacteria damaging the tissue.”

Once bacteria enters the potato, it can lead to rot or spoil. If consumed, these pathogens could result in botulism, listeria, or salmonella. 

  • Increased susceptibility to bacterial soft rot

Soft rot bacteria can affect all potato varieties; not one is immune. In waterlogged tubers, these pathogens enter through the enlarged lenticels. Infected flesh look water-soaked but can dry out if left under low temperatures. The infected flesh becomes soft rot, which is extremely wet and mushy, when exposed to high temperatures. 

What Happens to the Potatoes If There is a Flood?

In conclusion, when there is a flood, potatoes can be washed away or suffer from waterlogging. This can lead to issues like blackheart disease, enlarged lenticels, and increased susceptibility to bacterial soft rot, impacting both crops and consumers.

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