COVID-19 a Mixed Bag for Colorado Potato Growers

Published online: May 11, 2020 Articles Tad Thompson, The Produce News
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Source: The Produce News

The good news in Colorado’s fresh potato industry is that retail demand has been very strong this spring, because of, or in spite of, the coronavirus pandemic.

Jim Ehrlich, the executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, said movement from Colorado potato storages is so strong that those shippers may finish distributing the 2019 crop by July.

“Prices are strong,” he added in an April 29 interview.

The discouraging coronavirus news for the Colorado — and national potato industry — is the decline in foodservice sales. Foodservice operators in the United States and export markets are, of course, huge buyers of frozen potato products.

Given plummeting demand, frozen potato processors canceled many orders with Washington state and Idaho growers after those crops had been planted according to frozen potato contracts.

Thus, “the whole market structure is a mess!” Ehrlich indicated.

Colorado growers primarily produce for the retail market, with some sales to foodservice. But what could be expected excessive fresh market volume from Washington and Idaho will likely cause a ripple effect in the potato industry.

Ehrlich said 85 percent of Washington’s potato production goes to freezing processors. That is true for 40 percent of Idaho’s enormous potato production.

“Our growers are used to risk, but this is a unique situation,” Ehrlich said.

He noted that no one working in Colorado potato warehouses this spring has become sick with COVID-19.

The Colorado potato industry started planting the 2020 crop around April 15. That work should be completed by May 15.

Ehrlich expects a production of about 50,000 acres this year, which is on par with recent production.

Colorado’s potato harvest will begin in September, depending on the growing season.

The Colorado potato fields are at a high elevation, which brings a cooler growing environment than most other U.S. producing areas. Typically, potatoes are harvested 90 days after planting. In Colorado, it takes 100 days.

The high altitude of Colorado fields typically brings a 40-degree daily swing in temperatures through the growing season.

“We are thankful for all the hard work our warehouses and shippers have done to keep our product on supermarket shelves” through the coronavirus crisis, Ehrlich said. “We are also very grateful to all of the health care workers.”