Organic Potato Variety Trial in Michigan's Upper Peninsula

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2013: $2,245.77
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Michael Wixtrom
Wixtrom Natural Farms

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: potatoes


  • Crop Production: food product quality/safety
  • Education and Training: extension, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Pest Management: physical control
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: nutrient mineralization, organic matter

    Proposal summary:


    I currently farm 161 acres of tillable land, 21 owned and 140 rented; 100 acres is in hay, 10 acres in potatoes, the remainder in oats, rye, cover crops and sweet corn. I and my family have been farming for 4 years, operating under the name “Wixtrom Natural Farms”. We raise our farm products using natural growing techniques and plan to gain organic certification.


    My farm consists of 42 owned acres and 140 rented acres. It is in two separate farms, with my home farm separated from my other, new farm of 32 acres by a few miles. Both farms were owned and operated by my paternal and maternal grandparents, respectively. I am a lifetime resident here, and helped my grandfather with farm chores thoughout my youth, including haymaking, potatoes and dairy farm chores. The new farm, where this project is planned, was sold by my grandparents about 30 years ago. In the meantime, horses were kept on the property (160 acres at the time), hay was harvested without significant maintenance of soil fertility, manure was hauled off the farm, and buildings were neglected and fell into disrepair. The majority of land was eventually sold, and the remaining farmstead and 32 acres reverted to the bank. I purchased the 32 acres and buildings in 2009. Since then, I have been clearing brush and stone from old fields and initiating a soil building rotation using cover crops including oat/field pea mixture, rye and buckwheat. My first sales of crops from the new farm was in 2012 and included potatoes and sweet corn, all marketed as ‘naturally produced’ (using organic techniques, but not certified organic). My plan is to gain organic certification and market certified organic potatoes as a primary cash crop, along with small grains, hay, apples, and other produce. I hope to add a small dairy herd eventually. In addition to farming, I work as a self-employed carpenter. I am also in the process of repairing my grandfather’s old potato storage. My 20 year old son, Matt, assists with farm work and is initiating his own 1,000-bird egg enterprise.



    Naturally grown potatoes are my main cash crop and I plan to expand acreage from the current 7.5 acres in 2012 to 10 acres in 2013. The soils on my farm are low in fertility, although soil tests indicate that progress in being made through use of soil-building cover crops, additions of wood ash and organic fertilizers. Initial potato yields on the new farm were low in 2012, primarily due to region-wide drought.


    It is critically important to identify potato varieties suitable to my specialized markets that will perform well in both yield and quality under my soil and environmental conditions. Nutrient use efficiency, stress tolerance (temperature and moisture), tuber size, quality, appearance, and flavor are all important factors.


    This project will address the problem of selecting suitable varieties with an on-farm trial of potato varieties with potential for my markets and availability of certified organic seed. My customers will not accept potatoes originating from non-organic seed sources. I have identified 9 potato varieties of interest. There may be substitutions to the following variety list based on organic seed availability:


    • Reba (round white)
    • Purple Sun (purple skin, high vitamin C content)
    • King Harry (round white, Colorado Potato Beetle resistant)
    • Elba (round white, Colorado Potato Beetle resistant)
    • Vicasso (yellow flesh with red eyes)
    • German Butterball (yellow flesh, grown in 2012, included as ‘check’ variety)
    • Desiree (pink/yellow skin, yellow flesh, grown in 2012, included as ‘check’ variety)
    • Kueka Gold (yellow flesh)
    • Canela Russet (long storage, high dormancy)


    With assistance from Jim Isleib, Michigan State University Extension Upper Peninsula crop production educator, I will conduct an on-farm, replicated field trial including these 9 varieties. The trial will include 4 replications of single-row plots and cover about ¾ acre. The trial site will be in a potato production field and will be prepared identically to my other potato fields, including working in cover crop with chisel plow and/or disk, application of Fertrell and Sea-90 fertilizers (OMRI-approved organic fertilizers). Plots will be planted using my 2-row potato planter, hilled 3 times, harvested mechanically and graded and weighed in-field. Notes on tuber quality will be collected and the yield results will be analyzed statistically.

    The results will be used to select potato varieties for future years with good potential for success under our regional conditions in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.). Identification of varieties that perform better with less available plant nutrients and water, and are tolerant to insects, disease and the sometimes challenging U.P. growing conditions will allow reduced reliance on expensive commercial organic inputs and irrigation. There are a growing number of small, natural producers in the U.P. marketing farm products, including potatoes, at local farmers markets, restaurants, buyer’s clubs and other local markets. Growers who gain organic certification will have broader markets for organic potatoes. The information from this trial will be of interest and use to many small and beginning farmers across the region, as well as the established commercial potato industry.



    • November/December 2012

    Order seed potatoes. This must be done early because of limited availability of certified organic seed potatoes. Waiting until later in spring will result in unavailability of desired varieties.

    • May, 2013

    Plow, disk, fertilize and plant potato variety trial

    • June – September, 2013

    Scout potato variety trial for Colorado Potato Beetle (CPB). Hand-pick beetles and note differences of CPB infestation in varieties.

    • June-August, 2013

    Hill potato plots 3 times. Record observations on variety differences

    • July, 2013

    Submit article about project and promoting field day to local press, Marquette Food Co-op newsletter, MSU Extension website and MSU Extension U.P. Regional agricultural newsletter

    • Late August, 2013

    Hold on-farm field day. Provide project update at MSU Upper Peninsula Potato Growers field day

    • September, 2013

    Harvest, grade and weigh plots. Inspect for disease, external and internal defects. Conduct statistical analysis of yield information.

    • October/November, 2013

    Complete project report and submit to NCR SARE. Submit summary article to Marquette Food Co-op newsletter, MSU Extension website and MSU Extension U.P. Regional agricultural newsletter



    SARE projects:

    • Organic Potato Pest Management Strategic Plan: A Tool to Advance Organic Research and Education, Western SARE, 2006-2008

    ­   Producers, researchers and others met and discussed how they manage insects, nematodes, diseases, weeds and vertebrate pests. An organic production section was added to the conventional potato PMSP (pest management strategic plan)

    • Screening Open-Pollinated Vegetable Varieties Bred and Released in North Dakota for Suitability to Organic Production Systems and Local Markets, North Central SARE, 2009

    ­   Participating farmers planted and evaluated several potato varieties using evaluation forms and photos. No replication of varieties on individual farms. Crystal, Bison, Nordak and Viking potato varieties were identified as varieties with traits of interest.

    • 2012 Production Guide for Organic Potatoes, Cornell University Cooperative Extension

    ­   A comprehensive guide to organic potato production, including variety suggestions. This information is useful in determining potential potato varieties to include in the trial. It is also useful in comparing suggested organic techniques to the ones I use on my farm.

    • Michigan State University Extension 2012 On-Farm Potato Variety Trial Reports

    ­   Yield and quality information from experimental and commercial fresh-pack potato varieties of interest grown using conventional (not organic) production practices. Information from my project will be compared to trial results from the 2013 MSU trials.


    Good, reliable information on organic practices is available from a variety of sources. However, variety comparisons for organic potato production in the northern Upper Great Lakes region is not available. This project will add significantly to the information available to organic producers.



    News articles. Articles will be prepared with assistance from Jim Isleib, MSU Extension, in July 2013 to describe the project and promote a public on-farm field day for August, 2013. This article will be submitted to regional media to reach the general public, the MSU Extension website reaching MSU Extension clientele state-wide, and the MSU Extension U.P. Regional agricultural newsletter “U.P. Ag Connection”, reaching approximately 1,200 famers and industry people across the region, including the conventional potato growers and local-market farmers. The article will also be submitted to the Marquette Food Co-op (MFC) newsletter. This organization is the largest organic food retailer in the Upper Peninsula with over 1,500 members and a large base of non-member customers. MFC has its own outreach department and organizes public farm tours of vendor farms annually. My farm is an MFC vendor farm and plans to be included on the 2013 public farm tour.


    On-farm field day. A field day will be held in late August, 2013 in conjunction with a public farm tour. This will encourage the largest possible audience of consumers and farmers. Up to 50 participants are expected. Information on the trial design, varieties included and where results can be accessed after harvest will be provided. The field day will be promoted by MSU Extension and the Marquette Food Co-op.


    Presentation at 2013 MSU U.P. Potato Growers Field Day. A brief description of the trial will be included in the annual 2013 MSU U.P. Potato Growers Field Day. This annual event is held in late August or early September at the host farm for the MSU variety trial plots. It is well attended by the established, conventional potato growers and industry supply representatives in the U.P. region, including about 60 people annually. I attended this event for the first time in 2012 and made connections with MSU Potato Extension Specialist Chris Long and representatives from the Michigan Potato Industry Commission and Michigan Seed Potato Association.


    Distribution of Trial Results. Results will be reported to NCR-SARE. In addition, a summary will be posted on the MSU Extension website and submitted for publication in the MSU Extension U.P. Ag Connections newsletter and the Marquette Food Co-op newsletter.



    Total yield and yield of graded potato components will be measured and recorded. Statistical analysis will determine if there are valid yield differences between varieties. Field observations during the growing season will also be recorded to determine other meaningful varietal differences from disease and insect pressure and other stresses.


    Yield differences will be used to estimate potential for increased income from potato sales on my farm.


    An effort will be made to estimate potential community based on introduction of potato varieties with special healthful properties (such as higher vitamin C or protein content), if any are identified as superior performing varieties.


    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.