Fresh potato prices to be less this year

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldDecember 3, 2012 

Depressed prices for fresh potatoes mean Pasco farmer Randy Mullen won't break even this year.

Mullen, vice president of the National Potato Council, said prices have been some of the toughest farmers have dealt with in the past decade.

Idaho, which produces the most potatoes in the nation, has a surplus, which has brought down the prices for fresh potatoes.

Fresh potatoes make up about 10 percent of the Washington spud crop.

"This is going to be an unprofitable year for our fresh potato growers," said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission.

However, the bulk of Washington's potatoes -- 90 percent -- head to processors, Voigt said. Most of those are under contracts, which means the prices were set before growers planted the potatoes.

Washington farmers harvested 9.8 billion pounds of potatoes this year, slightly up from last year. The average yield for the state's 165,000 acres was down at about 59,500 pounds per acre, a 2.5 percent decline, according to the Washington State Potato Commission.

Washington, the first to start harvesting potatoes, has the second-largest volume in the nation, growing about 21 percent of U.S. potatoes.

In 2011, Washington's potato crop was valued at $771 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That made it the state's fourth-highest-valued commodity, after apples, milk and wheat.

While Washington's potato tonnage was slightly up, those potatoes were meant to fill the demand of the processed market caused by a low French fry supply, Voigt said.

Harvest this year was one of the longest the state has seen, with the first potatoes coming out of the ground June 22, and the last of the spuds surfacing in mid-November, said Dale Lathim, executive director for the Potato Growers of Washington and the United Fresh Potato Growers of Washington & Oregon.

The size of Washington's potatoes were down slightly this year, Lathim said. Some days were so hot the potato plants became stressed and shut down, causing smaller sizes.

"We have a variable crop," he said.

Yields are down just a bit from normal, Voigt said. But Washington farmers are still getting more tons per acre than other states.

Overall, quality was good, Lathim said.

"We are the premier potato growing region in the world," Lathim said.

More Washington potatoes were shipped outside of the Columbia Basin earlier this year, Lathim said. That was to fill the demand created because 2010 and 2011 potato crops in other states were not large enough.

That means Washington has fewer potatoes in storage now than it did at the same time last year, he said.

Still, Washington has enough potatoes to meet demand, he said.

"We are exactly right on with where we need to be," Lathim said.

Mullen, who finished harvesting his fresh potatoes in October, said there is some hope that prices may come up slightly in the spring.

Growers try to provide potatoes year round, and some will store potatoes until July, Voigt said.

Meanwhile, Idaho wants to divert some of its surplus potatoes into cattle feed, which may help prices, Lathim said.

But to have a big impact on price, more potatoes need to be diverted, Voigt said.

Prices also could go up should the United States get additional market access for fresh potatoes in some foreign countries, including Mexico, he said.

Fresh U.S. potatoes can only be sold in Mexico within about 16 miles of the border, but a decision to open up more of the country to fresh potatoes may occur in the next few months, Voigt said.

The future is more optimistic for processed potatoes, which makes up the majority of what Washington farmers grow.

Export sales for dehydrated and frozen potato products are growing, which caused ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston to announce a $200 million expansion of its Boardman plant, Lathim said.

"This is just a great time to be in the potato business in the Columbia Basin," he said.

Lamb Weston, ConAgra Foods' largest brand, is the largest potato processor in Washington, and one of the largest global producers. Company officials said the expansion, which should be complete in 2014, is needed to meet customer demand for the company's frozen potato products, especially in the international market.

The Boardman plant expansion will help Washington growers, who send a lot of potatoes to Oregon for processing, Voigt said.

A significant portion of Washington and Oregon potatoes heads to export markets, Voigt said.

Right now, Mullen said it's difficult to tell what next year will bring.

"We are always optimistic that next year is going to be better," he said.

But it's hard to say if the surplus of potatoes will be out of the pipeline by then, Mullen said.

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

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