Difficult Harvest Could Make for Interesting Marketing Year

Published online: Dec 31, 2019 Articles Colin Tiernan
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Source: The Spokesman-Review

Fresh potato prices have roughly doubled after a poor growing year and a frosty harvest caused American production to drop 6 percent in 2019.

Idaho spud growers who were able to get their harvest out of the ground, and who sell their spuds on the fresh market, are benefiting from the sky-high prices.

Few of those growers are in the Magic Valley, where most producers sign contracts with major potato processors in order to lock in their prices so they don’t have to gamble on fresh market prices. The Magic Valley has a number of major potato processors such as McCain Foods and Lamb Weston.

“There’s way fewer growers in the Magic Valley that do fresh (potatoes),” said Ryan Moss, chief operating officer Moss Farms, headquartered in Rupert.

While production did drop significantly this year, experts don’t expect there to be a potato shortage.

“I don’t anticipate that any time this year you’ll go into a fast-food restaurant and not be able to order french fries,” Idaho Farm Bureau Federation Director of Commodities Zak Miller said.

Potato farmers dealt with difficult conditions from the very beginning of 2019. Wet, cold weather in the spring got the growing season off to a slow start. The summer was cooler than usual too, which was detrimental for spud growth.

“The frost really isn’t the reason the price is up,” Miller said. “The yield was already down to begin with.”

The drop in production has caused potato prices to skyrocket from roughly $6 per hundred-pound sack during the summer, to roughly $11 now.

For the farmers who got their crop safely out of the ground and sell fresh potatoes – the kind that you buy whole at the store – 2019 will be a good year.

The early freeze in the second week of October was the cap on a tough year.

“Nobody saw it coming until five days before,” Idaho Potato Commission chairman Randy Hardy said. “There really wasn’t any time to make any adjustments.”

Early October freezes are rare.

“It’s just not normal,” Miller, who grows potatoes in St. Anthony, said. “It’s just unheard of.”

The freeze didn’t impact all of Idaho equally. The more mountainous regions of eastern Idaho suffered more. Still, Miller noted that farmers from the Treasure Valley clear to eastern Idaho got “nipped” by the storm.

Moss said the Mini-Cassia area wasn’t hurt too badly by the freeze. He had gotten about 85% of his potatoes out of the ground when the cold weather came.

Potatoes are a sensitive crop. They don’t respond well to cold.

“When it gets below 45 degrees, potatoes get brittle,” Hardy said.

Spuds can crack and bruise more easily when they’re harvested cold. A cold potato undergoes a chemical transformation as well – the starches turn to sugars. That effectively ruins the spud. Plus, if a potato freezes in the ground, the cell walls of the spuds will break.

The spud might look fine on the outside. But storing a potato that has frozen can create a mess. The water held in the cells leaks out, and eventually, a cellar full of frozen potatoes can turn into a pile of goop.

North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan were the states most heavily impacted by the early frost. Overall, American production fell 6.1%, while Idaho’s production dropped 5.5 percent. The Canadian provinces of Alberta and Manitoba were also affected.

“North Dakota was just brutalized,” Miller said. “It’s almost a complete disaster there.”

This is the first time a cold front has impacted a potato harvest this dramatically since 1985. Hardy still remembers that year almost like a nightmare.

“We quit digging at night when the potatoes were stuck to the side of the truck,” he said.

Farmers tried to put their spuds in cellars, but the crop was already ruined. The potatoes essentially melted.

“It was just soup,” Hardy said. “The smell was horrendous. It’s just something that sticks with you for a long, long time.”

Hardy said that farmers have to contend with devastating weather frequently.

“You’re laying it all out on the line every year,” he said. “It’s so easy for something like this to happen. And it’s so easy for a grower to get caught in it.”

Miller said he’s grateful for how many of his potatoes he was able to successfully harvest. If it hadn’t been for friends and neighbors helping out, while exhausted and sleep deprived, he’s not sure what would have happened.

“We had neighbors and community members help us come dig for 40 hours straight without stopping,” he said. “It’s extremely humbling and emotional, even as I think about it now. And the thing that’s neat about it is that I know what happened on my farm is a microcosm of what happened everywhere, up and down the valley.

“Farmers are competitors with one another. But when times are tough they’re also the first ones to give help.”