Dealings hinge on zebra chip cost
Contracts include no compensation for disease management
By JOHN O'CONNELL
Officials representing Idaho potato growers in contract negotiations with processors say a top priority has been recouping increased chemical costs to protect fields from zebra chip, a new disease to the region.
Uncertainty surrounding zebra chip, including when and where it may surface, has added to the challenge, said Dan Hargraves, executive director of Southern Idaho Potato Cooperative.
In 2012, Hargraves estimates growers spent from $80 per acre in eastern Idaho to $150 per acre in Magic Valley because of zebra chip, though contracts included no compensation for disease management.
"We don't know what is going to happen in 2013," Hargraves said. "The crux of the problem is that nobody knows what kind of disease pressure we're going to have this coming year. Certainly nobody forecast how severe it would be last year."
SIPCO anticipates negotiations will conclude by mid-February.
Zebra chip, which degrades potatoes with bands that darken when fried, is caused by a bacteria spread by potato psyllids. It first arrived in the Pacific Northwest in 2011.
Members of Potato Growers of Washington ratified contracts Jan. 24 with J.R. Simplot and Lamb Weston including a 2.1 percent increase on a weighted basis, said PGW Executive Director Dale Lathim. Lathim said his members were awarded an extra $160 per acre for zebra chip last season.
"Overall, we were very, very pleased with the settlements," Lathim said.
Idaho growers are seeking a 6 percent increase above 2012 contracts, based largely on zebra chip costs, said Ritchey Toevs, a southeast Idaho grower.
Toevs estimates he spent $85 per acre on his 2012 zebra chip program.
"My fields were right along the reservoirs, so I felt I was more at risk," Toevs said. "I guess we're just going to have to err on the side of caution until we learn more about (zebra chip)."
SIPCO President Mark Darrington, who farms in Declo, Idaho, said growers in his area spent about $140 per acre on zebra chip.
"The jury is still out on a lot of this stuff. Nobody has given me a specific formula or recipe to protect me and guarantee it will work," Darrington said.
Another problem he believes must be addressed is that some processors have rejected growers' potatoes for lower zebra chip infection rates than covered by insurance policies.
University of Idaho Extension economist Paul Patterson estimates zebra chip was responsible for at least half of production cost increases in southcentral and southwest Idaho. Patterson concluded zebra chip drove per acre costs up $154 in southwest Idaho, $104 in southcentral Idaho, $65 in southeast Idaho and $38 in northeast Idaho. If this summer is similar to last season, Patterson believes growers may need to apply more chemicals and utilize an extra aerial application, adding $29-$48 per acre to programs.
UI Extension entomologist Erik Wenninger worries insecticides on seed treatments may not work as long on psyllids as hoped, forcing growers to make their first foliar application earlier.