Washington potato outlook glum because of increase in Idaho potatoes

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldOctober 6, 2012 

An expected surplus of potatoes from Idaho has made the outlook for Washington's fresh spuds dismal.

Prices have been depressed even though farmers still are digging up potatoes and are past the height of the harvest season.

Washington's processed potatoes, which represent about 88 percent of the crop, are doing well, said Dale Lathim, executive director for the Potato Growers of Washington and the United Fresh Potato Growers of Washington & Oregon. Those are under contract, he said.

But the state's fresh potatoes -- those that head to grocery stores and restaurants instead of processors -- are subject to the whims of the marketplace, he said.

The combination of Idaho farmers planting too many acres and that state expecting its second best yield has increased the supply of fresh potatoes, Lathim said.

"They dominate the fresh industry," he said.

Nationwide, Washington grows the second-largest volume of potatoes, accounting for about 21 percent of total U.S. production, according to the Washington State Potato Commission. Idaho grows the most at 28 percent.

Franklin County has about 33,000 acres of potatoes, while Benton County grows about 27,000 acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The potato industry generates $4.6 billion for the state economy and creates 23,500 jobs, according to the commission.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that there was a significant increase in potato acreage this year, mostly coming from Idaho, said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission. Washington acreage was up, but that was based on what processors asked for.

Voigt said growers still don't know exactly how many tons of potatoes were produced this year, and won't until November.

In the Columbia Basin, farmers planted just the right amount of potatoes, Lathim said. He's expecting to see fewer potatoes in storage this year, since more potatoes than normal were shipped to processors outside of Washington state.

"We are having a very good crop, and we anticipate no shortage, but we also have no surplus," Lathim said.

Farmers plant what they need to fulfill contracts with processors, and for the last six years, the price and supply of potatoes have been stable, Lathim said.

Voigt said he isn't convinced yet that there is a surplus of potatoes. High heat reduced yields for Washington and other states, and freezes in Idaho could cause frozen potatoes.

When it gets hot, plants shut down and stop growing, even with Washington's irrigation, he said.

The jury is out on whether the decrease in yield will make up for the increase in acreage, he said.

Harvest starts as early as June for some farmers, and winds down in November. But the peak has been the last two weeks, Voigt said.

Most farmers will try to wrap up in the next couple of weeks to get potatoes out of the ground before it freezes, he said.

Once the temperatures hit the mid-20s, some of the potatoes closest to the surface may freeze, Voigt said. Once they defrost, the potatoes will rot and turn into mush, which can contaminate other potatoes.

It's not easy to tell when a potato is frozen, he said. Farmers will wait later in the day to harvest and have workers on the conveyer belt looking for ones starting to get a bit mushy, then discard them by hand.

That's labor intensive, and at some point, may not be worth it for farmers, Voigt said.

At this point, the forecasts look good for the Columbia Basin. Voigt said he doesn't see anything in the next ten days that would cause a problem for growers here.

The temperature is expected to drop to about 31 degrees overnight in some areas in the Tri-Cities during the next week, according to the National Weather Service.

Jeff Burns, potato manager for Agri-Pack, a fresh potato packing plant in Pasco, said both quality and quantity of potatoes look good so far this year.

The main concern right now is the weather, he said.

"We don't want cold weather. It is getting cold too fast," Burns said.

When the ground starts freezing every morning, that's not good for potatoes, which are 90 percent water, he said.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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