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News >  Agriculture

Bad weather causes potato shortage everywhere, except in Washington

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 3, 2019

Seed potatoes make their way through a mechanized cutting system on Thursday, April 13, 2017, at the Warden Hutterite Colony in Warden, Washington. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Seed potatoes make their way through a mechanized cutting system on Thursday, April 13, 2017, at the Warden Hutterite Colony in Warden, Washington. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Washington potato growers could double what they earn from this year’s crop because of shortages in Idaho, the Upper Midwest and Canada caused by bad weather in October that forced some producers to leave their spuds in the field.

The shortages could result in higher prices at grocery stores, and some national experts believe the down crop could force shortages in french fries.

However, the good news only goes so far for Washington farmers, because 90% to 95% of the crop was grown on existing contracts, said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington Potato Commission.

“Any grower who has some open potatoes will do really well,” Voigt said. “They will double their income. It will be interesting to see the impact on consumers.”

An increase in fry-processing capacity in Canada increased demand at a time when frost started hitting the potato growing regions in October. Farmers in Alberta and Idaho were able to salvage some of the damaged crops for storage. But, producers in Manitoba, North Dakota and Minnesota were forced to abandon some of their potatoes in the fields.

As a result, the tight supplies are expected to cause prices to increase across North America, Stephen Nicholson, a senior grains and oilseeds analyst, told Bloomberg recently.

“French fry demand has just been outstanding lately, and so supplies can’t meet the demand,” said Travis Blacker, an industry-relations director with the Idaho Potato Commission.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts domestic output will drop 6.1% this year to its lowest level since 2010, the agency said in a Nov. 8 report. In Idaho, which produces about 31% of the U.S. crop, output is forecast to fall 5.5%.

However, Washington, which is the nation’s second-largest producer of potatoes, or about 24% of the nation’s crop, actually increased its production this year over 2018.

“We have the highest yields in the world,” Voigt said. “That makes us a low-cost provider. We don’t have weather issues like North Dakota or Manitoba. We can have a freeze, but it is not as dramatic as it can be in other growing regions.”

The higher prices will not result in farmers growing more potatoes, he said. The problem is rotation. Voight said Washington has about 165,000 acres in potatoes but it needs three times that many acres because crops need to be rotated so often.

“If you plant any field more than once in four years, it builds up pathogens” that kill the plants, Voigt said. “For every 1,000 acres we grow potatoes, we need to have another 3,000 acres for rotation crops.”

As result, Washington has reached its potato-growing capacity.

“The only way we can grow more potatoes is to get more water out of the Columbia River and irrigate dry ground,” Voigt said.

Because of all that volatility, farmers tend to contract with buyers before they even start to work fields in the fall in preparation for spring planting.

“It’s very expensive to plant potatoes,” Voigt said. “Farmers want a guarantee. As long as they get an average yield, they will get some money. Without a contract, the risk would be too great.”

The Evergreen State produces about 10 billion pounds of potatoes annually, which equates to about 30 billion servings in a year.

“Potatoes are one of the cheapest produce items at the store,” Voigt said.

However, Voigt does not believe the shortage in supply will cause any major fast-food chains to run out of french fries.

“The supply is going to be tight, but anyone is going to be able to walk into a McDonald’s or a fast-food restaurant and there is going to be enough fries,” he said. “They have about a 35- to 40-day supply in freezers. But there will be some spot shortages.”

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