Potato yields on the rise

Prices drop as shippers move out more fresh-packed product

By DAVE WILKINS

Capital Press

Idaho farmers harvested about 131 million hundredweight of potatoes this year, a 12 percent increase from 2008, according to the latest USDA estimates.

The state has produced crops of similar overall size in recent years, but never have Idaho farmers produced as many potatoes per acre as they did this year.

Idaho growers averaged a record 411 hundredweight of spuds per acre, according to a USDA report released Nov. 10.

"The biggest surprise was the record yield," said Frank Muir, president of the Idaho Potato Commission. Growing conditions were ideal in Idaho this year, he said.

"We have one of the best-looking crops we have had in many years," Muir said. "It's a beautiful crop, with good variety and sizes."

Idaho yields still trailed those in Washington, Oregon and California, all of which produce more spuds per acre than Idaho.

Washington produced an average of 610 hundredweight of potatoes per acre, Oregon 570 hundredweight and California 495 hundredweight .

The larger-than-expected Idaho crop prompted some Idaho shippers to push more spuds out of fresh-packing sheds early this fall, resulting in a steep drop in prices, officials said.

At one point this fall, the grower return index for Idaho producers dipped below $3 per hundredweight -- far below the cost of production.

Muir said there's no good reason why Idaho potato prices should be that low. Demand has been picking up, and the 2009 crop isn't that much larger than what the state has seen in recent years, he said.

According to recent industry data, potatoes have shown the highest dollar sales growth over the past year of any retail fruit and vegetable category, Muir said.

"There's no reason to panic," he said. "Consumers are coming back to potatoes stronger than ever before."

Shipping point prices at packing sheds in Eastern and south-central Idaho have begun to stabilize, said Patty Willkie, a market news reporter with USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.

"Prices went through a period of decline when the season first started, but they have been leveling out," Willkie said Tuesday, Nov. 17.

Demand for 5- and 10-pound consumer bags -- the type typically sold at retail -- has exceeded offerings. Prices have been running about $4.50 to $5 per 50-pound bale.

"The bales have been in high demand because of the Thanksgiving season," Willkie said.

"In general, the larger carton sizes and the bales have been in pretty good demand the past couple of weeks," she said.

Nationally, potato production was up 3 percent from 2008, the USDA reported.

Growers in Washington state produced about 88.5 million hundredweight of spuds this year, a 5 percent decline from 2008.

Oregon growers produced 21 million hundredweight, a 13 percent increase.

In California, growers produced an estimated 4.1 million hundredweight of fall-crop potatoes, a 5 percent increase.

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