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Spud King's Success Comes at a Price
By Mary Losure
September 27, 1999
Part one of two parts.
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

Ron Offutt grows more potatoes than anyone else in the world. He grows potatoes that are perfect for french fries. Press reports call him the Sultan of Spuds and the Lord of the Fries, but his success has a price. Growing the perfect french fry has an environmental downside, as people in small towns near Offutt's potato farms have learned to their dismay.
Offutt farms more than 100,000 acres in 11 states. He also owns the biggest chain of John Deere Farm Equipment dealerships in the nation.

RON D. OFFUTT'S corporate office building in Fargo, North Dakota looks as though it belongs to a big insurance company. It has gleaming plate glass windows,deep carpets and leather furniture. It's the headquarters for a potato empire. Offutt farms more than 100,000 acres in 11 states. He also owns the biggest chain of John Deere Farm Equipment dealerships in the nation. His success began more than 30 years ago. That was when he realized the future of potato growing could be expressed in two words: french fry.
MPR: Did you see that frozen french fries were going to be huge?
Offutt: Yes, we knew that, we knew that.
MPR: How?
Offutt: Just the convenience factor and everything you read in that time frame and saw driving through the country was more McDonald's stores going up, Burger King was coming into the picture.
So Offutt began buying land where he could grow potatoes for the french fry market. He targeted the so called sand lands of western Minnesota.
Offutt: What the sand lands of Minnesota allowed us to do was to produce the kind of potatoes that make the best french fries.
At the time, most people thought the kind of dry, sandy land Offutt was buying wasn't worth much. It needed irrigation to produce a good crop. A lot of it was idled under government soil conservation programs. Offutt plowed it up and irrigated it. Soon, he was producing the exact kind of potatoes the french fry processors wanted. He expanded his operations dramatically.
Offutt: We went out the winter of '74 and almost tripled our operation.
Offutt soon got so big he bought his own processing plant in Atlanta. A few years later, he built a bigger one in Minnesota, Lamb Weston RDO Frozen. The initials RDO stand for Ron D. Offutt. He owns half the plant. It uses one billion pounds of potatoes a year. Offutt grows almost all of them.

It takes a lot of fertilizer to grow potatoes. In Perham, here's an example of how much applies nitrogen each crop requires. (Rate per acre)

Potatoes 241
Corn 96
Small grains 60

In the Lakes Cafe in Perham, Minnesota, everybody has heard of Ron D. Offutt. His potato warehouses sit on the railroad tracks on the edge of town.. His multimillion-gallon storage tanks for nitrogen fertilizer tower over the scene. His irrigation rigs stretch like telephone wires over the dry, sandy fields all around.

Joe Holzer is a retired factory worker. He lives a little way outside of town and has come in to chat with friends over coffee. He says since the irrigating began, he's noticed a change in his well.
Holzer: Fifteen years ago when I built my home there, you could sink a sand point down.
MPR: A sand point well?
Holzer: Yes, and drink the water. Today, you couldn't drink it, the nitrates are so high. And that's all happened since they started irrigating. That's my biggest concern.
Potatoes for the french fry market require big doses of nitrogen fertilizer , so they can grow supersized, the way french-fry processors like them

The problem is that nitrates from the nitrogen can wash right through sandy soil and into the groundwater. Perham has four city wells. The one near the elementary school is tainted with nitrates above the safe-drinking-water standard. Now the city is drilling a new well to replace it.

Private wells are also contaminated. John Altstadt is head of a committee set up by the mayor to protect the city's water. The committee has been testing wells around the area. He drives through a small subdivision on the edge of town. He points out houses where the wells are reading above the safe-drinking-water standard of 10 parts per million.
Altstadt: That brown one is over 10. This one here is the one that had 79 parts. They put in another new well and now that one is reading 49 parts per million.
Christy Staber, her husband and their 16-month-old son Harley moved into the subdivision this summer. Their well is the one reading 49 parts per million - nearly five times the safe-drinking standard. When they bought the house, they didn't know there was anything wrong. By the time they found out their drinking water was unsafe, their infant son had been drinking it for nearly a month.

Water contaminated with nitrates is dangerous for infants, pregnant woman, and old people. Babies under six months who drink it can get blue-baby syndrome. It inhibits the baby's ability to use oxygen. It can cause lasting damage. In some cases it is fatal.

Staber's son was 10 months too old to get blue baby syndrome. He did not seem to suffer any lasting effects, but his mother says she still worries.
Staber: It makes me sick, I think about it all the time. It bothers me at night, it bothers me all the time. I don't know what we're going to do about it.
Last year, R.D. Offutt and other smaller potato farmers applied well over 100,000 pounds of nitrogen to the land that overlies Perham's wells - 60 percent of all the fertilizer used on that land.

But there is no way of proving a connection between irrigated potato growing and Perham's well problems. You can't trace nitrates to a specific source, the way you can trace an industrial chemical back to a smokestack or a discharge pipe.

Bridgit Pankonin and her husband and five children live across the street from Christy Saber. Their well is testing three times the safe drinking water limit. She says she's angry, but doesn't know who to be angry with.
Pankonin: There's just a lot of speculation about why the wells are contaminated. So I can't say this company or this farmer did this and that, but it's like keep testing but what's the answer?
Ron Offutt concedes there are environmental risks to growing irrigated potatoes for the french fry market. He says his company is doing all it can to reduce the risks.
Offutt: Any type of agriculture production, not unique to potatoes, has environmental issues. I think they are minimized best-practice methods. Only putting on enough fertilizer and pesticide to handle the crop, and we monitor it very closely.
In recent years, regulators in Minnesota have started to take a harder look at the practice of growing irrigated potatoes on sandy soil over shallow aquifers. But studies to determine whether the practice is contaminating groundwater are expensive and time consuming.

In the meantime, the R.D. Offutt Company continues to grow. Its growth now is outside Minnesota. The company is focusing its expansion on arid western states. There is plenty of dry land there to irrigate.

The potatoes that make the perfect french fry need heavy applications of pesticides. Spray planes and helicopters have become a part of everyday life for the people who live near Ron Offutt's potato fields, but those who try to stop it soon find they're up against a system much bigger than they are. Read more in part two of the series.