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Farmer Tim Deeg believes he has the answer to french frying Idaho's famous potatoes - without cholesterol.

Deeg, 35, grows safflower - a plant used to make a cholesterol-free cooking oil - on his 4,500-acre farm seven miles south of American Falls."You look at the numbers of potatoes that we produce," he said, "they've got to be fried in something. Why not safflower oil?"

America's health-consciousness craze has increased the marketability of safflower and other oils low in saturated fats, and Deeg believes consumer demand may eventually force all potato processors to switch to cholesterol-free oils.

Some processors currently fry french fries, potato chips and other products in less expensive palm oil and animal fat, which are higher in saturated fats and cholesterol.

"I think we can make a market in Idaho for it (safflower), but we've got to get enough farmers interested in producing it so that the processors are willing to use it," he said.

The largest safflower grower in Power County, Deeg first planted 50 acres of the crop experimentally in 1978. This year he harvested 840 acres, and he may boost his acreage further if the market remains strong. Safflower is bringing $270 a ton, almost double what it brought a decade ago.

Fourteen Power County farmers will produce about 800 tons of safflower seed under contract with Evans Grain of Great Falls, Mont., this year. The seed is shipped to California where it is crushed and refined into oil.

Deeg grew all of his safflower on dryland at first. But this year he irrigated seven acres and saw his yields double to about 2,000 pounds an acre.

"They grow it in California and get about 3,000 to 4,000 pounds an acre. I feel that we have the possibility of doing that here," he said.

Safflower has proven successful for Deeg because it complements his grain crops. The plant has a 120-day growing season, so it matures later than wheat and barley and can be harvested after the grain. In addition, both crops can be planted and harvested with the same machinery.

Safflower also is a hardy plant that requires less moisture than grain and isn't easily damaged by frost and hail. Deeg said he has suffered no disease problems and minimal insect damage with the crop.

"Weeds are probably our biggest problem to control in the field," he said, noting that safflower dies when it is sprayed with the herbicide 2,4-D.