The Mid-Columbia's scorching summer temperatures are taking some steam out of this year's potato crop.
Columbia Basin potato growers forecasted a record harvest before the triple-digit weather kept returning.
Potatoes are the state's fourth-most valuable commodity after apples, milk and wheat.
"We had really good growing conditions all the way up to July, when it got hot," said James Alford, a Franklin County potato farmer.
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Potatoes did better than expected during the first go-round of heat, said Alford, who started harvesting in mid-July.
But the second stretch of hot days has taken a toll, said Alford of Alford Farms.
Heat stress causes misshapen tubers or internal brown and black spots.
Still, Alford remains optimistic because the season has been pretty dry and fairly disease and pest free.
"Overall we are really happy with the crop," he said.
Chris Voigt, Washington State Potato Commission executive director, said they are expecting a similar crop to last year's harvest.
Washington farmers expect a little more than 100 million hundredweight of potatoes, said Dale Lathim, executive director for the Potato Growers of Washington and the United Fresh Potato Growers of Washington & Oregon.
That would be slightly up from last year.
Growers planted about 5,000 acres more this year, reaching about 165,000 acres statewide, Lathim said. Benton and Franklin counties grow about 64,600 acres of potatoes, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The state's 2012 crop was valued at $700 million.
Lathim said the potatoes being harvested a week ago were the first he'd seen damaged by heat.
"I think we fared as well as we could have expected with that much heat," Lathim said.
Consumers won't end up seeing any difference in the fresh potatoes or frozen potato products they buy, Lathim said.
Processors and fresh packing facilities will cull out any bad potatoes, so farmers will suffer some lower profits and processors and fresh pack companies will have higher costs, he said.
Most growers still should do well, Lathim said.
That's because about 80 percent of Washington's crop is headed to frozen processors, which means farmers have contracts that set prices based on yield, quality and variety. For example, Alford's potatoes become frozen french fries.
The demand for frozen potato products has rapidly increased in the past six months.
Prices for fresh market potatoes, however, are severely depressed because Idaho is still trying to sell off the leftovers from its large 2013 crop, Voigt said.
Generally, the U.S. supply of fresh potatoes is short in August, but that's not happening this year.
Growers who are selling fresh potatoes now are selling at a loss, he said.
In response to a growing global demand for frozen products, ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston recently expanded its Boardman potato processing plant.
The $200 million processing line will allow the company to make 300 million more pounds of french fries each year.
Potato harvest tends to peak in late September and early October. But farmers harvest into November.
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-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; email@example.com