How Slow Start in Northwest Could Affect Fry Market

Published online: Apr 22, 2019 Articles John Notarianni
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Source: Oregon Public Broadcasting

Spring is just now beginning to shine in much of eastern Oregon and Washington. A winter of record snowfall left the ground frozen or flooded much later than normal. As a result, farmers are getting a late start on their crops.

“We’ve had the longest winter ever,” said Chris Voigt, director of the Washington State Potato Commission. He recently spoke with OPB Weekend Edition host John Notarianni. “Normally we start planting potatoes the end of February, but this year we weren’t able to start planting until April 1.”

Voigt said that delay is problematic because of the contracts most growers have with potato processors.

“Typically a processor can go to a grower and say, ‘I don’t care that your potatoes aren’t fully mature yet, we need them.’” He said harvesting potatoes a few weeks early could lead to as much of a 30% loss in yield—and profit—for farmers. “That’s huge.”

Now, farmers are scrambling to catch up and cram two and a half months worth of planting into one month. That means double the amount of trucks, tractors and planters, working around the clock.

“If you try calling a potato grower right now, good luck,” Voigt said. “They’re not going to return your call unless you have extra tractors or planters to help them out.”

Now, the 2019 potato crop depends on the weather. A string of 80-degree sunny days will be necessary to help farmers get back on track.

If not, the french fry companies have a backup plan: an emergency month-long supply of potatoes, currently frozen in giant warehouse freezers the size of two football fields.

A food vendor sells a basket of fresh-cut Idaho potato fries.
A food vendor sells a basket of fresh-cut Idaho potato fries. Amanda Peacher/OPB

The question is how far will they have to dig into those freezers to make up for a delayed potato crop. If they get down to a 25-day supply, we could see spot shortages around the country.

“You might not have curly fries in Miami, or skin-on fries in Maine,” Voigt said.

And if they have to deplete their reserves down to a 10-day supply?

“That’s where it’s going to be the french fry apocalypse,” Voigt said. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”