Published online: Jun 05, 2009
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Idaho potato farmers are planting the state's signature crop, and some are making changes based on reduced processing contracts.
Processors that make french fries and other frozen potato products have reduced overall contracted potato acreage in the Northwest this year by an estimated 8 to 10 percent due to shrinking demand.
Potato growers have been forced to lower their expectations in response.
"We cut back about 300 acres this year because of the processors," farmer Rod Lake said April 30 as he prepared to plant a field of chipping stock potatoes near Paul, Idaho.
Lake has grown for the fresh market and for major fry makers such as Simplot and McCain Foods for years. He's still growing for those markets, but has diversified his operation as the market has changed over the years.
This year he landed a chipping contract after 20 years of trying.
"This is our first year for chippers," Lake said as he prepared to plant a field to a Frito Lay variety.
Lake started growing fingerling potatoes several years ago. He's up to about 200 acres of the specialty variety this year.
Industry leaders have warned that a wreck could be around the corner and have strongly urged growers to plant processing potatoes only if they have a contract. They fear a glut of open-market spuds if farmers go ahead with planting without one.
Historically, potato growers have nearly always increased plantings after a good year, and the industry is coming off three consecutive good years.
Jerry Wright, CEO of United Potato Growers of Idaho, warned co-op members this spring
that it looked like 5,000 acres of open-market process potatoes would probably be planted in Idaho.
Bruce Huffaker, a consultant to United and publisher of the North American Potato Market News, projected that U.S. growers will plant 22,500 fewer acres to fall potatoes than they did in 2008.
The two-percent reduction will come almost entirely from the frozen processing sector, he said.