Kern County potato shippers expect a slightly late start this season, but that could be good news, given the expected late end to the desert deal.

Kern County acreage should be about the same for Lehr Bros. Inc., Edison, Calif., said Pete Belluomini, vice president of farming.

Other area growers Belluomini has talked also report similar acreage as in 2011, or in some cases slight decreases.

New this year for Lehr Bros. will be an increased emphasis on red and yellow potatoes, Belluomini said. In the past, the company focused on russets and whites and offered customers reds and yellows mainly as mixers, he said.

In 2012, however, Lehr Bros. expects to ship about equal amounts of russets, whites, reds and yellows.

Belluomini traces the increase in red and yellow production in Kern County to heightened awareness about the health benefits of fresh produce — whether yellow and reds have earned it or not.

“Something about the perception of ‘natural’ and ‘health,’” Belluomini said. “The brighter colors are maybe more associated with health.”

Lehr Bros. expects to begin harvesting about May 7, about a week later than normal because of chilly weather early in the growing season.

“It was cold early on — not a frosty and killing cold, but things got off to a slow start,” Belluomini said.

Blessing in disguise

The late start will likely end up being a blessing in disguise, given the relatively large volume of spuds from the desert that have yet to ship, Belluomini said.

“That crop is bigger than normal,” he said. “It looks like it’s going to drag into the normal start date (for Kern),” he said. “In the long run, it’s just as well that we’re late.”

That projected late start could bode well for demand at the beginning of the Kern deal, Belluomini said.

“In the past, when people have been itching to get going, that’s when we’ve had logjams,” he said. “Being delayed, it may be a more natural progression.”

While grower-shippers with acreage in the desert will likely wait until about May 7 to begin harvesting in Kern County, those who don’t have desert acreage could try to push the start date up a few days, Belluomini said.

Neither the cold weather early in the season nor the rain in mid-April should have an effect on quality, size or yields, however, Belluomini said.

Belluomini also reported no pest or disease concerns as of the week of April 16.

Shafter, Calif.-based C. Handel & Sons expects to begin harvesting potatoes slightly later than usual, said Glenn Handel, general manager.

“We may be a bit behind because of the cooler weather we’ve had,” Handel said April 13. “It’s been erratic the past week. It’s raining, which is unusual for us in April.”

The weather, however, would likely only affect timing, not size, yields or quality, Handel said.

Handel & Sons’ acreage was expected to be about the same this season, Handel said. He expects the same is true for most other Kern County potato growers.

Handel & Sons expects to ship a similar mix of potato varieties this season, Handel said — about 60% reds, 30% russets and 10% yellows.

Prices picking up steam

Handel was cautiously optimistic about demand heading into the Kern County deal.

“The russet market is picking up a little steam,” he said.

On April 17, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $12-12.50 for 50-pound cartons of russet burbanks 40-100s from Idaho, down from $13-24 last year at the same time.

Bakersfield-based Top Brass Marketing expects to market colored potatoes through the end of July or beginning of August, said Brett Dixon, president.

Potato acreage is up this season for the company, and Dixon said he expects brisk movement and good quality.

“Potatoes look very promising and clean out of the desert and are expected to continue with our local harvest out of Edison,” he said. “Edison will just be a little later than normal, especially on the reds.”