Revised 2012 NASS Potato Estimate Questioned

Published online: Sep 27, 2013 John O'Connell, Capital Press
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USDA has slightly reduced its January estimate of the 2012 fall potato crop size, though the agency concluded a whopping 4.08 million hundredweight of spuds were nonetheless diverted to cattle feeders.

Just 825,000 hundredweight of the 2011 crop was used as feed.

Many in the potato industry believe even USDA's final 2012 numbers - which reduce the national fall crop estimate from 422 million hundredweight, an 8 percent production increase, to 418 million hundredweight, up 7 percent - are inflated, as evidenced by shortages that surfaced this summer beginning in June.

United Potato Growers of America conducts an annual physical count of potato acres in Idaho and other major production areas.

"By every measure, there were fewer potatoes in the crop than USDA had originally estimated," said Jerry Wright, UPGA president and CEO, declining to comment in greater detail.

However, Wright said the USDA feed estimate was in the ballpark of UPGA's figures.

"By all of our tracking, somewhere between 4 and 4.5 million hundredweight were moved to cattle feed," Wright said. "I believe it's the most that's been documented sent to cattle in the last number of years."

Aberdeen, Idaho, grower Ritchey Toevs fed some unsold seed potatoes to livestock.

"A lot of potatoes that went to cows, that was probably the highest, best use for that part of the crop. It probably wasn't a lot of No. 1s," Toevs said. "There might have been some overages at harvest that were high quality, but later on I think a lot of it was stressed potatoes that wouldn't make it to market anywhere."

The U.S. average fall potato yield, at 423 hundredweight per acre, was up 7 hundredweight from the prior year. The average price of all 2012 potatoes sold, at $8.65 per hundredweight, was down 76 cents.

Processors used 283 million hundredweight of raw 2012 spuds, up 4 percent, and table stock potatoes, which totaled 119 million hundredweight, were up 15 percent from the prior year. Seed sales, at 23.7 million hundredweight, were up 8 percent. Growers also kept 3.29 million hundredweight of 2012 crop as seed for their own farms, up 9 percent from 2011.

Final USDA 2012 regional statewide production estimates included: Idaho at 141.82 million hundredweight, up from 128.76 million hundredweight; Washington at 95.94 million hundredweight, down from 97.6 million hundredweight; Oregon at 22.935 million hundredweight, down from 23.342 million hundredweight; and California at 3.901 million hundredweight, down from 4.312 million hundredweight.

Rhett Summers, who raises potatoes in Rexburg, Idaho, is unconvinced of USDA's September estimates.

"I believe they were off more than 1 percent," Summers said. "The proof is in the pudding with the shortage we had at the end of the old crop. The price to growers tripled over 45 days."

Summers would also like to see the agency include more detail about the quality of the crop. He believes packing sheds required more potatoes to fill boxes with quality spuds, exhausting inventories ahead of the normal pace.

Vince Matthews, state statistician with USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service Idaho field office, noted reports include potato grade and size information.