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Spud Growers Face Mixed Outlook Market For Processing Potatoes Is Stronger Than For Fresh Spuds

Eastern Washington potato farmers whose spuds are bound for processing plants are expecting a good year, but growers whose potatoes end up fresh on supermarket shelves face low prices.

“Potato farmers are doing OK, especially if they’re processing growers,” said Dale Lathim, director of the Potato Growers of Washington. “The quality is very good and the yields are very good.”

Farmers of potatoes used for french fries and other processed foods will receive from $95 to $100 a ton this year, compared with about $88 a ton last year, Lathim said.

But farmers for the fresh market - who grow fewer acres in the state and normally make more per ton than processing-potato growers - are getting only about $75.

“We’re reaching the lowest point in prices that we’ve seen in fresh potatoes in several years,” said Tony Czebotar, an Othello potato farmer and packer.

Fresh potato prices are low because of a large supply, Lathim said. Crops were bountiful in all the nation’s potato-growing regions, and many grown last year were still in storage when this year’s harvest began.

Eastern Washington’s weather this year has been favorable for potato farmers, said Jeff McMorran, an area extension agent in Hermiston, Ore., for Oregon State University. A cool, wet spring was followed by a warm, dry summer.

“The growers are getting really good quality this year, and in processing, quality is the name of the game,” McMorran said. “We’re seeing a lot of big, blocky potatoes.”

About 85 percent of all potato acreage in Eastern Washington is devoted to growing for processors. Processing-potato growers sign contracts each spring with processors, ensuring a paycheck, while growers of potatoes sold as fresh produce are more captive to the whims of the market.

In 1994, the year with the most recent records, the state’s farmers made $422 million from potatoes.