Potato packing

A pre-COVID-19 Idaho potato packing operation.

March potato exports fell by double-digit percentages from a year ago because of  coronavirus impacts, Potatoes USA said.

U.S. exports of frozen potato products in March were off 12% from March 2019, the industry marketing organization said in a news release. Exports of dehydrated potatoes were off 16%. Fresh exports fell 13%.

Overall, however, export volumes remained higher for the marketing year that began July 1. It was up 8% for frozen products to 803,162 metric tons, up 4% for dehydrated products to 134,814 metric tons and up 5% to 377,408 metric tons for fresh potatoes for direct consumption as well as processing.

Around 20% of the U.S. potato crop is exported. Idaho, which accounts for about one-third of U.S. production, exports about 20% of its crop.

Second-ranked Washington and consistent top-10 producer Oregon export bigger shares of their crops due to their proximity to ports.

Restaurants’ full or partial shutdowns amid COVID-19 restrictions in many countries had a big impact by March, Chief Marketing Officer John Toaspern said in an interview. Restaurant shutdowns weren’t as lengthy or widespread in South Korea and Taiwan.

Most U.S. frozen-potato products are mainly sold through foodservice, “so when people were not able to access restaurants, the demand for fries was there but they could not execute on that demand,” he said. Many countries thus built up supplies, “and by March we started to see the impact in orders canceled or delayed.”

A strong gain in exports for the retail channel fell well short of making up for the foodservice drop, Toaspern said.

Trade could start to normalize by July, he said, reflecting impacts from countries reopening and employees returning to work.

Logistics also have challenged U.S. potato exporters.

“We have struggled to receive containers to send our product,” Idaho Potato Commission International Marketing Director Ross Johnson said. Particularly in April, as China was shut down, “there was a bit of a backlog of containers there, and we were not receiving refrigerated containers back to fulfill importers’ demand.”

China has since reopened, reducing the backlog of unmoved oceangoing containers.

“We have a lot of requests coming in from Asia and Latin America from importers looking for Idaho potatoes,” Johnson said. “We’re seeing some progress.”

Frozen products

Year-to-date growth was led by a 26% increase to Mexico, the second-largest market for U.S. potato exports. Potatoes USA said this largely reflects removal of the 20% retaliatory tariff imposed in 2018 and removed in June 2019. March exports to Mexico jumped 55.9% from March 2019.

Year-to-date growth of 2% to Japan, the largest overseas market, affected overall figures substantially, Potatoes USA said. Exports to Japan in March fell 15.6% from March 2019.

Other year-to-date growth markets included the Philippines at 22%, Thailand at 20% and Central America at 8%.

Ratification of the European Union-Vietnam free-trade agreement — which exempts the EU from the 13% tariff applied to the U.S. products — has switched that market from one of growth for the U.S. through December to one of decline. It's down 8% through March, Potatoes USA said. All Asia markets except Thailand and Indonesia were down 10% or more for March.

Dehydrated potatoes

March gains to Mexico and the United Arab Emirates bolstered July-March exports, Potatoes USA said. Exports are down to most markets in Asia except the Philippines and Indonesia, which saw significant declines in March.

March exports more than doubled to UAE, rose 6% to Mexico, fell 11% to Canada and fell 17% to Europe. Year-to-date gains were 35% to Europe, 12% to UAE, 6% to Canada and 4% to Mexico.

Fresh shipments

Exports to Mexico are down nearly 7% for the marketing year but were up 10% in March from a year earlier. Exports to Canada dropped 29% in March but were up 17% year-to-date.

Potatoes USA said it expects exports to Canada to keep declining as excess potatoes there, for processing into fries, will curtail U.S. imports.

Fresh exports to Asia were off 2% for the marketing year but fell 15% in March.

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