Spuds sprouting in community support in Ritzville

As a 4th generation dryland wheat farmer, Michele Kiesz isn't afraid of hard work, even if it's not her crop. While her family's 4,000 acres of wheat soaks up the sunshine, Michele is on a mission to help potato farmers get surplus food into the hands of hungry neighbors.

"I feel like this is what I'm supposed to be doing right now," said Michele Kiesz.

In this region, potatoes are a big deal. The sandy loam soil paired with the right weather creates the perfect recipe for perfect potatoes. They're so good, Washington potatoes are turned into french fries and normally served at thousands of restaurants around the world. However, as coronavirus spread and restaurants slowed down, potato processors were forced to reduce production by half.

Even with the slowdown, the Hutterian Farm Community honored its yearly order of nearly 5 million dollars’ worth of seedling potatoes to prevent another farmer from going out of business. The tight-knit community then turned to Michele to help figure out what to do with 1,600 tons of potatoes.

"Their whole message is we see a problem for a fellow farmer; we don't want to see these go to waste. If we can't get paid for them, then we need to get them out to people who need them," said Michele.

So, Michele started calling state leaders, fellow farmers, and neighbors to coordinate a massive effort to give away the potatoes before they sprout. On March 29, 2020, Michele and friends handed out 20 tons of potatoes in Ritzville. The rest of the seedling potatoes are in storage. Michele is hopeful big shipping companies will donate time and money to transport and package the potatoes across the state to food banks and people in need.

"Farmers aren't asking for a handout, we're asking for a hand up," said Michele.

Because the potatoes are seedlings, Michele says people can eat them now or plant in a garden- one potato seedling produces ten plants, enough to share with others.

"Those potatoes are free to you, but they cost farmers a lot of blood, sweat, and tears—and millions of dollars. Please pay it forward," said Michele.

Michele is now reaching out to other farmers with excess crops—to prevent waste and feed families.

"I just feel super blessed to be a 4th generation farmer who can put food on my table. I want to do that for other people trying to feed their families," said Michele.

Photo: Stephen McFadden, Adams County Economic Development Director


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