How does a potato grow

Perfect fries start with… perfect potatoes. It is quite a challenge to have those delivered year-round. To find out where which potatoes grow best. But how does a potato actually grow?

Let’s start with a few facts: most of our potatoes are grown in north-western Europe and the United States. Why? Because the climate is ideal, the farmers are very experienced, and the infrastructure supports large-scale potato production and transport. Eighty percent of potatoes for fries worldwide comes from these regions.

Increasingly high-tech
After the contracts with the potato growers are signed in January, these dedicated professionals prepare their fields in February and March. Then, in March or April, they plant their seed potatoes. An important moment that is never exactly fixed, because it can no longer be freezing and the soil cannot be too wet. That moment can be weeks apart in different years.

Many operations in and around the field are done mechanically and increasingly high-tech, with large GPS-driven tractors that optimally utilise and work the land.

Nice and long fries
Seed potatoes are small potatoes that are very consistent in size, so that the potatoes that grow from them are as consistent in size as possible. But first things first. A solid green plant with a lot of leaves grows from each seed potato. New potatoes emerge at the ends of the roots. How many there are and how large they get depends on the potato breed. At LambWeston, we use 15 different breeds in Europe and 20 different breeds worldwide, all specifically selected for the production of ‘perfect fries’. Of course, the length is important, because we want nice and long fries. Other key points of importance are: resistance to disease and suitability for sustainable growth, the dry matter content, the yield per hectare, consistent sugar levels, sensitivity to defects, and storage potential.

The sensitive type
To get those ‘perfect fries’, we want everything to be as even as possible. Everything. No, really. Because to deliver quality fries year-round, we need quality potatoes year-round. This means we need to interchange the different breeds with different harvest times in the correct way. And the best possible growth conditions need to be ensured throughout the entire season. During the growing season, potatoes need nutrition and protection, and in dry periods, they often need additional water (irrigation).

As with every crop, the quality is largely dependent on weather conditions. And the potato is quite the sensitive type. Perhaps even the most vulnerable crop on earth! Temperature is important. In Europe, potatoes grow best between 20 and 25 degrees Celsius. The fact that global warming is raising temperatures a bit is not a bad thing for our potatoes. As long as the difference between day and night temperatures remains significant, a bit more heat can even be an advantage. However, the increasingly extreme weather conditions that come with this can be disastrous.

Most preferably, a potato gets some rain every few days, but no more than necessary to grow those few days. Because with just twenty-four hours of wet feet, the entire harvest of that field is lost. Seriously. Depending on the potato breed, the growing season ends between July and September. Then it’s time to harvest!

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