By Dave Wilkins, Capital Press
Northwest potato production is down an estimated 10 percent this year, and prices have been rallying since harvest wrapped up in October.
Idaho, Oregon and Washington farmers produced a combined 216 million cwt of potatoes this year, compared with 241 million cwt in 2009, according to the USDA's first official estimates of fall crop production released Nov. 9.
Idaho, the nation's top potato state, produced about 114 million cwt of spuds this year, a drop of 14 percent from 2009. Growers in the state harvested 294,000 acres of potatoes this year, the lowest level since 1980.
Idaho grower-shippers should reap better returns during the 2010-11 marketing year, provided they don't flood the market with too many spuds at any given time, said Paul Patterson, a University of Idaho Extension agricultural economist.
"This is a very marketable crop," he said. "As long as the industry uses discretion, growers should be able to see much better returns this year than a year ago."
Prices dipped briefly when Idaho growers began harvesting the Russet Burbank crop, but have been moving higher, despite an early pre-Thanksgiving shipping surge.
"Prices have stabilized to a level that is probably sustainable for the rest of the year," Patterson said.
Average grower prices for Idaho fresh-market russets were about $7.50 to $9 per cwt in early November, compared with $3 to $4 per cwt a year ago, he said.
The Pacific Northwest is the largest potato production area in the country. Idaho and Washington accounted for 49 percent of the nation's total annual production this year and 54 percent of the fall crop. Growers in Washington state produced an estimated 82 million cwt of spuds, down 6 percent from a year ago. Oregon produced about 20 million cwt this year, a decrease of 6.5 percent from 2009.
The Northwest growing season got off to a slow start this year with a cool, wet spring. Idaho growers produced an average of 389 cwt per acre, far below last year's record yield of 415 hundredweight per acre.
Tubers didn't have a chance to bulk up quite as much this year, and the size profile of the new crop is smaller than normal.
Shipping point prices at Idaho packing sheds reflect the reduced supply of large-sized spuds. Fifty-pound cartons containing 100 tubers have been fetching about $8.25 per box, while cartons containing 40, 50 or 60 tubers have been selling for about $15.50 per box.