Growers fear prices will stay low as robust harvest continues
By JOHN O'CONNELL
USDA estimates the nation's fall potato crop is up 8 percent from last year, led by an 11 percent production increase in Idaho, where growers significantly stepped up planting and reported record yields.
U.S. growers planted 6 percent more spuds, producing 422 million hundredweight of the crop from 991,500 acres, according to the agency's Nov. 9 crop production report.
Idaho growers planted 345,000 spud acres, up by 25,000 acres. USDA estimates Idaho's total production at 143 million hundredweight potatoes, up 14 million hundredweight from last season and the state's second largest crop on record. Idaho's average yield, at 416 hundredweight per acre, is up 12 hundredweight from last season.
"Based on the amount of spuds there is, we don't expect the price to come back during the next full marketing year," said Derek Reed, a fresh market grower from Idaho Falls. "We're going to move spuds as we're able and not hold onto any until late."
Despite severe frost damage to one field, Reed had near-record potato yields. Though fresh prices have been well below the cost of production throughout harvest, this season won't be a disaster for Reed thanks to strong prices for his wheat and barley crops. He expects next season, many of Idaho's potato acres will shift toward wheat.
In California and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, spud production remained in check.
In Washington, growers produced 98.175 million hundredweight, up 575,000 hundredweight, with an average yield of 595 hundredweight per acre, down 15 hundredweight from the prior year.
Oregon growers produced 23.255 million hundredweight of spuds, down 87,000 hundredweight from the prior year. Oregon's average yield, at 555 hundredweight per acre, was down 30 hundredweight.
California's yields and total production were unchanged at 490 hundredweight per acre and 4.312 million hundredweight.
University of Idaho Extension economist Paul Patterson said growers who have invested between $7.75 and $8.25 per hundredweight in their spuds, counting storage, are fetching fresh prices of between $3 and $5.50 per hundredweight. He doubts confirmation of the large crop will further erode fresh prices, convinced the market has already adjusted in anticipation.
He agrees spud acres will likely shift toward wheat or hay next season. For the time being, he said growers have been diverting a lot of spuds that aren't under contract into the livestock feed chain.
He believes most fresh growers are well positioned to absorb losses, having reduced debt and built equity during recent strong years.
Bart Wattenbarger, an Idaho grower who raises fresh potatoes between Shelley and Idaho Falls, plans to reduce his spud planting from 1,920 acres to 1,530 acres, in favor of wheat.
His yields were also down about 15 sacks per acre due to frost.
Wattenbarger made a plea to his fellow potato farmers.
"I hope they would look at their wheat options and corn options and maybe contract some of that and plant a few acres less of potatoes," he said. "We're all in this together. I'm not asking them to dump all their spuds into wheat. We all have commitments to different sheds, but we do need to plant a few acres less and get this back in line again."