WILLISTON, N.D. – An exceptionally windy day in northwestern North Dakota in mid September created some rough conditions for farm employees of the Steinbeisser family who were working hard to separate dirt and small rocks from the potatoes running down the conveyor belts into the large storage facility.
“The wind is pretty strong today,” said Russ Steinbeisser, wiping the dirt from his eyes. “But we’re nearly done with harvesting potatoes. We started Sept. 5 and should be finished by tomorrow (Sept 20).”
Russ farms and ranches with his brother and cousins in northwestern North Dakota and northeastern Montana with farm headquarters located south of Sidney, Mont. Russ, his brother, Joey, and cousins Craig, Don and Jim all farm and ranch together on the operation known as VS Inc. (Five Steinbeissers). The cousins also rent their two fathers’ farm called Steinbeisser & Sons that was formerly run by Don Sr. and Joe Steinbeisser.
The Steinbeissers are growing Russet Burbanks and are trying to get the crop in before a hard frost. Temperatures had dropped into the lower 30s but the potatoes were deep enough in the soil, the freeze didn’t affect the crop, Russ said.
According to NDSU, Russet Burbanks make excellent french fries, have good yields, high solids and store well.
The Steinbeissers started growing potatoes in 2000 back when J.R. Simplot Co. had discussions with Williston city leaders about putting in a french fry manufacturing company in the region. That has never happened, but it continues to be talked about every year because the region is considered ideal for growing potatoes, according to the Williston City Commission.
Simplot has a french fry plant in Grand Forks, which is all the way on the other side of the state – and that is where the Steinbeissers’ potatoes go.
“We have predominantly sandy soils and potatoes really grow well here,” Russ said. “It’s a good crop this year.”
They grow 400 acres of potatoes under pivot irrigation from a large aquifer north of Williston and usually get 350-400 bags per acre, he added.
Out in the fields near Zahl, N.D., a tractor-powered digger harvests the crop, and a semi brings the crop back to the storage area. There the potatoes go down a clod hopper that separates out the dirt, debris and rocks from the potatoes as they move down a series of conveyor belts. As the potatoes move down the long belts, workers take a last look to make sure the potatoes are absolutely cleaned of rocks and dirt before they will be stored.
The Steinbeissers built the huge storage facility that holds 150,000 hundredweights of potatoes because Simplot wanted potatoes that could be stored long term, Russ said. Simplot sends semis during the year to pick up potatoes when they are needed. Because some of the potatoes will be stored for 9 to 10 months before being picked up, the Steinbeissers use specialized air circulation systems to keep the temperature and humidity as uniform as possible in the piles in the storage facility.
Up on the second level of the storage facility, an employee operates a piler by remote control, which moves potatoes from the conveyor belts onto the pile. Nearly as far as the eye can see there are layers upon layers of potatoes in piles in this facility.
What’s the hardest thing about growing potatoes? Russ explained it this way: “If I was out in the field operating the digger, I would say it is when the digger plugs up and has to be cleaned out. But for me, it is being away from my family.”
The Steinbeissers also hire additional help to assist with the potato harvest. Some of this year’s crew came from Fargo and some from Texas, and they will all go to the Fargo area after harvest is complete to work the sugarbeet harvest there, Russ said.
The Steinbeisser farm was started by Russ’ grandfather who settled near the Yellowstone River on the Montana side. The Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project was started and built in the early 1900s to divert water from a dam near Glendive, Mont., enabling farmers in the region to irrigate their crops. The Steinbeissers continue to use the irrigation which makes it possible to grow a wide variety of crops that otherwise could not be grown in this mostly low rainfall area.
The Steinbeissers are growing potatoes, sugarbeets, malting barley, grain corn, corn silage, soybeans, alfalfa hay, and spring wheat this summer. They have harvested the potatoes and were getting ready to start corn and sugarbeet harvest the last week of September.
Most of their crops are grown under irrigation, using both center pivot and flood irrigation, but there are some dryland crops.
The Steinbeissers all work with the crops and cattle, but they also focus on individual areas as necessary. Russ is helping process and store the potatoes in an area about 25 miles north of Williston. Then he will return to the family’s feedlot south of Sidney, where they feed 3,000-4,000 calves and raise them all the way to finish. They also operate a 650 head cow-calf operation.
Russ enjoys working with the calves and the cattle and said he will be there at the feedlot all winter long. In addition, he helps with the haying and lends a hand wherever else he may be needed.
“We raise much of our own feed, but will buy distillers grains and some corn if needed,” he said.