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NAPI CEO addresses accusations on social media over mismanagement of potato operations

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FARMINGTON — Navajo Agricultural Products Industry projects it will lose more than $4 million in revenue due to a siphon break earlier this year that left the tribal entity's farm without water for nearly a month.

NAPI lost almost one-third of its total yield of potatoes this harvest season due to storage rot, according to a press release from the agency. The $4.3 million figure covers losses from NAPI’s entire operation, including losses from the potato harvest.

A siphon near Kutz Wash was breached on May 13, stopping water delivery for the 80,000-acre farm until mid-June.

A representative from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a NAPI insurance agent determined the potato storage rot was caused due to the siphon breach and heat stress on the crop, according to the press release.

NAPI expects to recoup about 60 percent of its loss from the potato harvest through an insurance claim.

The projected revenue loss was included in a press release that was intended to address accusations on social media over mismanagement of NAPI’s potato operations.

NAPI CEO Wilton Charley said in a media conference call that three photos and a video circulated on social media claimed fresh potatoes were rotting on the farm. He said that is not true, explaining the postings show a cull waste site where potatoes that do not meet USDA standards are disposed.

Charley claimed the photos and video were posted by an employee of the Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers company to sway public opinion so NAPI would extend its contract with the company.

The company's lease will end on Dec. 31, and the NAPI board of directors did not renew the contract.

Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers, which also operates Upland Desert Popcorn, has been operating on land leased from NAPI for more than 20 years.

Pumpkin Patch co-owner John Hamby said in a phone interview that he had seen the social media postings, but the company did not direct employees to make posts regarding NAPI operations. He added the employee behind the postings was probably frustrated at losing a job when the NAPI contract ends.

NAPI officials have said Pumpkin Patch did not respond to a request for proposal to farm 4,700 acres. The RFP was issued May 9 and closed June 10.

Hamby said NAPI was unwilling to share information on the RFP with Pumpkin Patch staff.

The social media postings show a potato waste site about two miles south of the NAPI headquarters off N.M. Highway 371 south of Farmington.

During a tour of the location today, Amanda Kerr, NAPI potato crop manager, said cull sites are common at farms that grow potatoes.

To meet USDA standards set by Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling Practices, NAPI disposes of potatoes by spreading them in a designated area and burying them.

Potatoes that are culled are usually too small, oversized, misshapen or covered in excess dirt or they were damaged by machinery during the harvest.

"It’s basically everything you wouldn’t buy at a grocery store," Kerr said.

To meet safety regulations, Kerr said the potatoes are kept in an isolated site for pest control and to limit exposure to airborne diseases and bacterial infections.

Employees use equipment to work the potatoes into the ground and keep them from sprouting and producing viable plants that could attract diseases and infections.

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 and jkellogg@daily-times.com.

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