Idaho, Maine Potato Industries Deal with Effects of COVID-19

Published online: May 22, 2020 Articles Kathryn Miles
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Source: U.S. News & World Report

Thewarehouses on Dominic LaJoie's 800-acre potato farm in Van Buren, Maine, should be nearly empty this time of year. Last week, they were still bursting with potatoes.

Like most farmers here, LaJoie dedicates about 60 percent of his crop to the foodservice industry. About 2.5 million pounds of the potatoes in his warehouses were destined to become french fries. But as the coronavirus has closed restaurants and canceled events ranging from Major League Baseball games to summer concerts and fairs, LaJoie, a fifth-generation potato farmer, has nowhere to sell his supply. And with no end to the pandemic in sight, those potatoes may well rot before he can find a buyer.

It's an all too common problem in a state where potatoes are the dominant agricultural crop (they fetch about $176 million here annually). Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, estimates that as many 200 million pounds of Maine potatoes may go to waste this season alone.

"There is an overabundance of potatoes here so extreme it's hard for even a potato person to get their head around," he says.

One reason why is because of the highly specialized nature of the contemporary potato market. Maine farmers here grow over a hundred different varieties. The same potato bred to make the perfect barbeque chip may disintegrate if you try to boil it. The Russet Burbank – what Flannery calls the "king of the french fry industry" – doesn't package well for supermarket sales, and is often rejected by consumers in favor of its more aesthetically appealing cousin, the Russet Norkotah.

LaJoie, who is also vice president of the National Potato Council, dedicates about a third of his fields to Russet Burbanks. About half his production are the blue potatoes that become the iconic chips served aboard JetBlue flights. The New Jersey plant that makes those particular chips closed for a few weeks because of the pandemic. It has since reopened in a limited capacity to accommodate social distancing practices, says LaJoie. But he worries about what the precipitous decline in air travel – and new policies requiring face masks for passengers – will mean for potato chip sales.

"This is going to get pushed further down the road for a long time," LaJoie says. "It's a very big deal. My only hope is that consumers begin demanding the comfort food they enjoyed aboard commercial flights."

His is a concern echoed across the country. Last week, a farmer in Washington State told LaJoie that he had to destroy about 300 acres of potatoes he had just planted because his processor cancelled a purchase contract. That same state has witnessed mile-long lines of cars waiting for bags of free potatoes gifted by nearly bankrupt farmers.

In Idaho, which leads the country in potato production, farmers are facing similar financial disaster.

Alan Kahn is vice president of foodservice for the Idaho Potato Commission. He says it's too soon to know just how significant the financial impact will be, but it will undoubtedly be a profound one. Already, farmers there are trying to convert last year's yield to cattle feed or are seeking food banks taking donations. Frozen potato processors in his state have reduced their planting acreage anywhere from five to 50%, and Kahn says seed growers worry their crops will be returned to them as a result. He sees no sign of the crisis abating soon.

"The bottom line is that growers are going to be under extreme financial hardship coming out of this crop year and continuing well into next year," Kahn says.

It's an unprecedented crisis for the industry, agrees Kam Quarles, CEO of the National Potato Council.

"We've had natural disasters that have decimated potatoes in a single geographic region, but never in our history have we seen a nationwide catastrophe like this," he says. "It's eye-popping."

In April, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue unveiled the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), intended to provide assistance to farmers who have experienced at least a 5 percent loss as a result of the pandemic. On May 4, he also announced that an additional $50 million of Section 32 funds, which are used to purchase surplus agricultural products for federal use, would be dedicated to potatoes.

"That's the largest federal potato buy in history," says Quarles, "but it's still just a down payment on what is usually a $4.1 billion industry."

Quarles and the farmers he represents are also concerned about the lack of guidance for these new federal initiatives. Typically, a Section 32 auction specifies both the type of potato (frozen, fresh or processed) and the region where it is needed: the USDA might request, say, bids for 10,000 pounds of tater tots as part of the National School Lunch Program, or 1,000 pounds of fresh potatoes to distribute to hurricane victims. It's not clear for what types of potatoes the $50 million will be allocated. And since the Section 32 process favors both large-scale processors and rewards the lowest bidder, it may not do much to help smaller growers like LaJoie.

On May 19, Perdue and President Trump unveiled what they called "ground rules" for dispersing relief monies to farmers, but Quarles says more still needs to be done. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not yet released details on how or when those funds will be distributed. When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the USDA said on Tuesday that it is "working as quickly as possible to implement CFAP," but could not provide any specifics about the program.

Back in Maine, LaJoie says he hopes that assistance will come soon enough to help both growers and the people who buy their potatoes.

"I worry about my business and my farm," he says. "But I also worry about the general population of this country. This virus has already hurt a lot of lives and shattered a lot of dreams."