By JOHN O'CONNELL
As they continue moving a 2012 crop marked by overproduction and dismal prices, Idaho potato farmers see reasons for guarded optimism about their next harvest.
A cool spring has delayed crop emergence throughout much of potato country, and most Idaho growers anticipate there will be at least a slight reduction in planted acreage this season. Furthermore, Idaho potato shipments to date are more than 2.23 million hundredweight ahead of last year's pace, making room for the next crop.
Though consumer bag prices remain depressed, Idaho carton prices have risen steadily for the past six weeks. Prices of 70-count cartons of Idaho spuds -- mostly in the $9 to $9.50 range -- have more than doubled since Jan. 2.
From mid-May through July 1, United Potato Growers of America will physically count spud acreage throughout Idaho and Wisconsin, in the Columbia and Klamath basins of Oregon and Washington, in the San Luis Valley of Colorado and in a few other test areas. The numbers will be published on July 11, when USDA also makes its acreage projections.
"As far as planting and spring conditions, there's no question it's been cooler, and it's been cooler in many parts of the country," said UPGA President Jerry Wright.
Wright anticipates the count will show some reduction in fresh potato acreage, though he considers yield projections to be "not worthy of speculation" at this stage of the season.
Fort Hall, Idaho, fresh potato grower Kevin Loveland estimates his potato crop is 10 days behind normal. Loveland said the delay could affect yields, but acknowledges crops can catch up with a few hot weeks. He's shifted much of his acreage to spring wheat.
Blackfoot grower David Cooper believes his spud crop is two and a half weeks behind, which could subtract at least 50 sacks per acre from eventual yields.
"I think most guys have cut back 20 percent," said Cooper, who also planted more spring wheat this year..
Aberdeen grower Ritchey Toevs believes a cool start to May has "probably taken the top off of the yield," though he considers September to be the most critical month. He noted spuds seem to be free of rhizoctonia, a pathogenic fungus that thrives during cool springs. Toevs doubts growers have reduced spud acreage in the area from American Falls to Springfield.
Based on conversations with growers, Dan Hargraves, executive director of Southern Idaho Potato Cooperative, predicts a reduction in acres in western Idaho, and possibly a slight reduction in the Magic Valley.
"I believe there's a reduction in acres, and that combined with average to below-average crop progress to date bodes well for our chances to get this thing back to a profitable margin," Hargraves said.
Further west, Declo grower Dan Moss said his spuds are half emerged and "growing like crazy." However, he's heard from growers in Minnesota and North Dakota who are weeks behind in planting due to rain. Moss said contract reductions by processors should decrease spud acreage in Magic Valley, leading to increased open-market buying by processors down the road.
He's also pleased rising carton prices have increased grower returns on 2012 crop.