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Alaska-grown potato sales decline

By Shannon Ballard Photojournalist: John Thain - 6:40 PM August 13, 2014

On the last day of summer break in the Mat-Su Valley, some students are found in a field.

It’s peak harvest season at VanderWeele Farm in Palmer.

Mixed vegetables like broccoli and lettuce are in demand and sales have been good, but greens are just a third of what this farm produces.

The real moneymaker is potatoes.

“We try to supply the Anchorage market and Fairbanks and Soldotna, the Kenai Peninsula,” said farmer Ben VanderWeele.

VanderWeele harvests 2,000 tons of potatoes every year, but in his 46 years of growing in the Valley he has never had the problem he faces now.

Inside his storage refrigerator are mounds of spuds he says shouldn’t be there.

“I have too many left, that’s right. They need to be gone before we start harvest, which is Monday after Labor Day. They need to be out of here so we can put the new crop in here,” VanderWeele said.

Alaska-grown potato sales at grocery stores are way down compared to last year, according to the state Division of Agriculture.

Major potato producers, like VanderWeele, are worried they will not sell all of last year’s potatoes before it’s time to harvest next month.

“We’ve got bills today and the bills are being paid by the sell of potatoes,” VanderWeele said.

He is hoping Alaskans will step up to help the local potato industry by choosing to buy local.

There are a number of factors contributing to slow potato sales, according to the state. They include dieting trends to avoid starchy food, more interest in specialty potatoes, and lower-priced spuds coming up from Outside.

VanderWeele gives all of his smaller potatoes to charity. The ones he can’t sell or give away will go to feed animals.

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