Hot weather curtails E. Washington potato crop

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldDecember 8, 2013 

Potato Planting

Seed potatoes are cut and sorted by 3 Rivers Potato Services workers in Franklin County.

HERALD/PAUL T. ERICKSON

Eastern Washington's hot summer shriveled some of this year's potato crop.

But while the size of the state's potato harvest was smaller, industry officials still say there should be enough potatoes to go around.

Having so many days near 100 degrees stressed the crop more than initially expected, said Dale Lathim, executive director for the Potato Growers of Washington and the United Fresh Potato Growers of Washington & Oregon.

"Our yields, especially in the south basin where the heat was more intense, were significantly lower than what we normally see," he said.

Also, some growers dug up spuds early to meet a demand that far exceeded the supply early in the season, said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission.

"We were sacrificing yield to meet that early demand for potatoes," he said.

The size of potatoes has been across the board, with some farmers reporting smaller than usual tubers and others seeing larger than average spuds, Voigt said.

But considering the summer stress on the crop, industry officials say they are pleased.

"It's very manageable, and we look forward to a good year," Lathim said.

Prices have been reasonable on the fresh market, which is much better than what fresh potato farmers faced last year, Lathim said.

Potatoes, Washington's fourth top commodity, declined by 9 percent to $700 million in 2012 because of the dismal market for fresh potatoes.

Growers for the fresh market, which makes up about 10 percent of Washington's crop, lost money after concerns about a nationwide overplanting that caused prices to plummet.

The bulk of Washington's potato crop -- about 80 percent -- heads to processing, where potatoes are made into french fries and other frozen potato products. The rest become chips.

The state has about 160,000 acres of potatoes.

Benton County farmers grow about 32,000 acres, while Franklin County farmers grow about 28,000 acres of potatoes, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Walla Walla County grows about 10,000 acres of potatoes.

Washington's fresh potato growers were able to recover some of their losses from last year in late July, August and early September when the potato supply dwindled, Voigt said.

The USDA is estimating that Washington's 2013 crop will end up at about 96 million hundredweight, up slightly from last year.

Lathim estimates this year's crop is closer to 88 million hundredweight.

Washington state had about 2,000 acres that could not be harvested because the seeds were infected with bacterial ring rot disease, Voigt said.

When farmers plant contaminated seed, the potatoes eventually rot in the ground, he said.

While it hurt some Washington farmers, Voigt said it sounds like Idaho was hit harder, with about 20,000 acres lost to the ring rot.

It's a disease that tends to pop up every 10 to 20 years, he said. Sometimes an outbreak has to do with a lack of sanitation of equipment and storage, he said.

The potato commission is urging farmers to ask their seed growers to have the seeds tested before planting next year's crop, he said. DNA tests can reveal contamination.

-- To submit business news, go to bit.ly/bizformtch.

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

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