Potato farmers do their part to fight hunger

gray 1.JPG MPR Photo/Julie Siple

In a small warehouse outside Clear Lake, Paul Gray peered deep into a bin of red potatoes.

“Some are missing a little bit of skin, some are a little misshapen,” Gray pointed out. “Some look like Mickey Mouse.”

A fourth-generation potato farmer, Paul Gray is part of the future of hunger relief. As we reported this week, hunger relief groups are stepping up efforts to capture the millions of pounds of produce from Minnesota fields that would otherwise go to waste.

Much of the potential lies in potatoes. A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group based on data from the US Department of Agriculture estimates 92 million pounds of potatoes went unharvested in Minnesota in 2009. Another 120 million pounds came out of the fields, but were never sold to retailers or consumers.

“No one wants to see their hard work go to waste, whether you’re making widgets or growing potatoes,” said Gray, who farms 120 acres of potatoes with his brother.

The Grays are among many potato farmers in the Clear Lake area who donate to hunger relief groups. This year, the Gray Potato Farm gave 120,000 pounds; last year, 80,000. Donating makes sense, said Gray, because he doesn’t have room in his small warehouse to store a surplus at harvest time.

“We have to continue to move, because we grow red potatoes,” he said. “Our red potatoes are grown on irritated, sandy soil. If the sandy soil dries out, it tends to want to suck the color away from the potatoes. So we need to continue harvesting once we start. It’s a timing factor.”

Donating surplus frees up space to bring in another semi load for cleaning. Gray primarily donates number two potatoes, those missing a little skin or sporting a strange shape.

“From a nutritional standpoint, they’re just as good as a number one,” he said. “But in our society, they want things that look like the magazine pictures or the TV commercial.”

For Gray, giving to hunger relief groups makes more than just business sense. It’s about helping your neighbor. “Even if your neighbor is 500 miles away,” said Gray.

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