High temperatures in Mid-Columbia shrink potato sizes

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 23, 2013 

Potato Harvester Mullen

A potato harvester moves through one of Randy Mullen's fields earlier this year off Selph Landing Road in Franklin County. He was harvesting for the fresh market. Potatoes are Washington's third-largest crop. Last year, farmers produced about 9.8 billion pounds of potatoes, with most going to processors.

BOB BRAWDY — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Washington's hot summer has shrunk the size of potatoes, which could make long fries and large baked potatoes less plentiful this season.

But while the size of this year's spuds is expected to be smaller than last year's, quality is good and the prices farmers will receive for fresh market potatoes are better.

The next three weeks mark peak harvest times for Washington potato farmers, said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission.

The supply of potatoes nationwide during the first few weeks of August had dwindled significantly, so Washington fresh potato farmers were digging and shipping as fast as they could at the start of this harvest, Voigt said.

"It was just gangbusters for the first three weeks of harvest," he said.

Prices were good for those weeks because Washington farmers were among the only North American growers with a new crop to sell on the fresh market, said Dale Lathim, executive director for the Potato Growers of Washington and the United Fresh Potato Growers of Washington & Oregon.

"The prices were actually sky high," a plus for farmers considering last year was one where fresh growers lost money, Voigt said.

Only 10 percent of Washington's potato crop is sold on the fresh market. The rest is grown for processing with the prices set by contracts. Much of the processing potatoes are destined to become French fries and other frozen potatoes products and others are made into chips.

The final value of Washington's potato crop from last year was $700 million, a dip of 9 percent from the 2011 crop, according to data recently released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Production overall last year was down, with Washington farmers harvesting 1.9 billion tons of spuds, a decline of less than 2 percent from the previous year, according to the data.

The drop in the state's potato crop's value shows how low fresh market prices really were, Lathim said.

For part of last year, prices for the fresh market were at near historic lows, down to $60 to $80 for a ton, he said. Prices rose again once the industry realized the USDA had overestimated the size of the national potato crop.

Fresh market prices are back to a reasonable level currently, where growers can still earn a profit and consumers can still get a good deal at the grocery store, Voigt said.

On Monday, prices were at about break-even levels, at about $140 a ton, Lathim said.

Weatherwise, the year started out with wonderful growing conditions, Voigt said. Then, in late June, it got hot, and stayed hot, causing potato plants to wither starting Aug. 1, a month sooner than normal. But farmers didn't harvest early.

"It will be a smaller crop," Voigt said, adding the quality should be about average.

Voigt is anticipating more smaller potatoes his year. That means the nation likely will be short on the larger spuds, which are sold individually at grocery stores and used in restaurants.

The size of potatoes could also affect the prices growers receive for processing potatoes, Voigt said. They won't lose money, but they may not see bonuses.

"Your French fries are only going to be as long as your potato is," he said.

Fresh market potato farmers who shipped early did well, Lathim said, Right now, farmers are putting potatoes into storage and will sell throughout the year, waiting to put more on the market until the prices improve.

"Our growers are going to do just fine," he said.

Lathim estimates the harvest may finish at the end of October because of the lighter crop.

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

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