By JOHN O'CONNELL
Idaho processors have cut potato acres under contract for the coming season by roughly 3 percent, officials with Southeast Idaho Potato Cooperative recently learned.
Most affected growers had already made preparations for planting spuds, such as leasing land, fumigating soil, preparing beds and purchasing seed, prompting SIPCO leaders to worry some extra acres will be planted for the open market.
Any potatoes planted without a contract could hinder the recovery of fresh market prices driven below production costs by a large 2012 crop, said SIPCO Executive Director Dan Hargraves. SIPCO sent members an automated phone message urging them to swallow investments on spud fields without contracts and plant other crops.
"I believe a number of growers won't plant them," Hargraves said. "I hope that all of them don't plant them."
Hargraves said McCain Foods and ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston cut 4,000 acres combined. J.R. Simplot maintained its full acreage. Hargraves said the cuts affected growers in eastern and southcentral Idaho, and most lost contracts on a single pivot. Processors told Hargraves the cuts are in response to flat sales.
"As growers, we wish we could know sooner because we don't want to plant acres they don't want," Hargraves said. (Processors) cited excess production as being the impediment for moving contract prices in 2013. When cuts are made at the last moment, that can contribute to that very problem."
McCain spokeswoman Dierdre Dickerson emphasized growers received a slight bump in contract prices this season but acknowledged the contracted acreage includes "a slight correction in coverage." ConAgra spokeswoman Marti DeMoss wouldn't discuss specifics of contracts but said the dialog with growers has been productive.
American Falls grower Klaren Koompin isn't overly concerned about his cut acreage. He reasons fumigation can benefit other crops, or spuds he planned to plant without fumigation. He's content to sell surplus seed to dehydration plants or cattle feeders.
"Typically as a contract grower we don't plant anything unless it not only has a home, but also has a (price) attached to the sack," Koompin said. "We'll just switch over to a grain crop or something else."
SIPCO President Mark Darrington, of Declo, volunteered last fall to curtail his acreage with McCain. Only recently did the company accept his offer. Darrington removed potato beds prepared in one field and will lengthen his rotation. He said he's glad to do his part to help the spud market.
"Potatoes are an important crop, but it's not the most profitable crop in my rotation," Darrington said, noting increased spraying to protect spuds from the threat of a new crop disease, zebra chip, has added to his costs. "I thought if I volunteered, that's better than not planning ahead and having an unplanned cutback."
He encourages other growers to avoid "planting potatoes that don't have a home," but understands it's human nature to want to finish a job after the groundwork is laid.
"If they put a pencil to it, they'd find they'd come out way further ahead if they'd sell their seed to a cattle feeder and plant grain," Darrington said.