Potato surplus dwindling
Industry making 'progress on dealing with the excess'
By JOHN O'CONNELL
Potato industry leaders say new USDA numbers show they're making a modest dent in a large 2012 crop supply that has depressed fresh prices.
Idaho's potato stocks, at 80.4 million hundredweight, were up 11 million hundredweight, or 16 percent, through Feb. 1 compared with the previous year, according to the USDA report.
As large as the surplus may be, Dan Hargraves, executive director of the Southern Idaho Potato Cooperative, said it represents progress from the original crop size, which was 14 million hundredweight larger than the previous year.
"There's been progress on dealing with the excess, and we need to continue to stay the course," Hargraves said.
In Washington, potato stocks through Feb. 1 totaled 44.5 million hundredweight, compared with 43 million hundredweight on Feb. 1, 2012. Oregon's Feb. 1, 2013, stocks, at 13.4 million hundredweight, were up from 12.9 million hundredweight during the previous year, and California's stocks, at 1.5 million hundredweight, were down from 1.7 million hundredweight.
Nationally, inventories held in storage by the 13 major potato states totaled 214 million hundredweight, up 14 percent from a year ago.
Disappearance -- a measure of spud volume sold fresh, processed or lost through shrinkage or rot -- was 62.7 million hundredweight in Idaho, up 6 percent from last year. Nationally, disappearance was 199 million hundredweight, up 2 percent in the 13 major potato states.
Processing, however, has declined slightly. Processors in Idaho and Malheur County, Ore., have used 40.8 million hundredweight of 2012 potatoes, down 3 percent from last year.
Processors in the nine major potato states have used 107 million hundredweight of potatoes this season, down 2 percent from the same period last year.
The amount of potatoes used for dehydrating is virtually unchanged.
"It's a little troubling because the bright spot on potatoes was the processed side of the market. There seemed to be evidence that processors were regaining some of the markets, particularly overseas, that had diminished in the recession," said University of Idaho Extension economist Paul Patterson.
Patterson believes it's likely that the report didn't adequately capture spuds utilized for cattle feed. Patterson believes USDA knows who to call about processed and fresh market consumption, but data on spuds for feed are harder to collect.
Hargraves emphasized 2012 was a record processing year, so a drop of a few percentage points still reflects relatively strong processing.
Furthermore, he said fresh shipments have been up. In Idaho, USDA's Market News Service reported 17.93 million hundredweight of fresh shipments this season through Feb. 15, compared with 16.69 million last season. Nationally, fresh shipments, at 55.31 million hundredweight through Feb. 9, were up from 54.58 million during the previous season.
Hargraves has also brokered deals to sell Russet Burbanks to cattle feeders.
"(The feed price) has been around $2.50 (per hundredweight), which is pretty decent given the current pricing," Hargraves said. "Growers are using a variety of methods, be it increased fresh shipments or cattle feeding programs, to deal with the increase in production from the 2012 crop. If we stay the course, we can clean this crop up."