Heat and smoke have hindered Washington’s potato crop, industry leaders say.
The early part of the crop had been slightly above average in quality and yield, said Dale Lathin, executive director of the Potato Growers of Washington.
Smoke from wildfires became more dense, interfering with the potato plants’ photosynthesis, Lathim said.
“Basically it did nothing this week in terms of growth,” Lathim said. “The guys had to turn off their water because the plants just weren’t taking it up because they weren’t photosynthesizing.”
During field samples two weeks ago, Lathim said, the crop looked well-above average for yield and quality. Last week, samples showed closer to average because of heat and he expects even lower this week.
“By the time we get to harvest, we’re still going to be above average, but not by much,” he said. “But the quality should be very good. We’re going to have a very manageable crop. Nothing bountiful, but very good quality, manageable size crop.”
Heat hasn’t affected earlier varieties Shepody or Ranger, but the question is whether it will impact potatoes that go into storage, said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington Potato Commission in Moses Lake.
Shepody and Ranger varieties go straight from the field to processing plants in the region.
The Columbia Basin is one of the earliest areas in the country to begin harvesting potatoes for processing. Harvest will continue through October.
Potato farmers in the Columbia Basin began harvesting Shepody in mid-July, and are wrapping up that part of the harvest, Voigt said.
Shepody yields were a little light at first, but then bulked up, Voigt said.
Farmers are now harvesting Ranger and Russet Norkotah fresh potatoes for packing sheds and to go into storage. Yields look good, Voigt said.
Farmers will begin harvesting Russet Burbank in mid-September. Yield and quality are promising, Voigt said.
“There’s going to be a decent supply of big potatoes, a decent supply of small potatoes and then a decent supply of potatoes in the middle,” he said.
Disease and insect pressure has been “pretty mild,” Voigt said.
Prices are “OK,” he said. A larger Idaho supply is moderating some potato prices.
“The last six years haven’t been fabulous for the fresh potato industry,” Voigt said. “Last year was one of the first years where it was semi-OK. We’re hoping for good things this season.”
Prices depend on variety on a per-acre basis, but Lathim estimates an overall breakeven average price of $7 per hundredweight. Prices so far are roughly $6 to $6.50 in most cases, he said.
About 91 percent of the crop is grown under contract. Farmers who make average yield and quality will be profitable, Lathim said.
The fresh market, about 9 percent of the crop, is subject to market whims.
“It started off very reasonable, decent prices, but in the last 24 hours, that price has really plummeted,” Lathim said. “If it keeps going down, it will get to an unprofitable level.”