(Jan. 18) With near-perfect weather in the months after Hurricane Wilma, southern Florida potato growers made up for lost time, but the new crop won’t be ready for two to three weeks later than normal in mid-February.

Even with a shorter market window — the northern Florida crop in the Hastings area will start around May 1 — Immokalee-area shippers anticipate the best markets in a decade as storage red potatoes dwindle.

“Normally, we have to really compete against the old-crop potatoes,” said Arnold Mack, president of Mack Farms Inc., Lake Wales, Fla., who hasn’t seen such a promising season since 1992. “You’d think, with stored potatoes not available in quantity, that it would help us to have a good quality new potato.”

Tom Campbell, partner of Tri-Campbell Farms, Grafton, N.D., said he anticipates Tri-Campbell’s Immokalee-area crop will be ready for harvest the third week of February, which is about two weeks later than normal. The early southern Florida crop usually has to find a footing with the storage crop anyway, he said, so demand is usually lower then.

This season could be different, shippers said, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Jan. 1 stock report, released Jan. 17 by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, bears that out.

According to the report, North Dakota and Minnesota storage numbers are down 6.7 million cwt. from the previous season. The Red River Valley production area is a major supplier of red potatoes.

Of the 11.1 million cwt. in Minnesota storage, 8% are reds, and 11% of North Dakota’s 11.3 million cwt. are reds, according to the USDA.

Campbell said some packing sheds in the valley will probably ship their last potatoes of the season by the first of February, and the market reflects the demand.

PRICES

The USDA on Jan. 18 reported some Red River Valley shippers have said they’ll run out of stocks by mid-February at the current pace.The valley’s size A reds, sold in 2,000-pound totes, were $15 per cwt. on Jan. 17, according to the department, and 50-pound sacks of size B reds were $10. In mid-January 2005, a 100-pound sack of size A reds from the Red River Valley averaged $8.50 and a 50-pound sack was $4.50.

From northwest Washington on Jan. 18, the USDA reported 50-pound cartons of size A round reds were $12-13 and cartons of size B were $14-16.

“Demand’s been good and fairly firm,” he said. “We started out at about $12 (a cwt. on A’s), so it’s crept up a couple of bucks. The B’s have really jumped up, at $13-14 (a cwt.). That’s really gone up, but that needed to. It’s very rare that (A- and B-size potatoes) are at the same price, and they were in August. We were flooded with so many B’s in August, September and October.”

Southern Florida potato growers harvested 6,200 acres in spring 2005, according to the USDA, which is down from the 8,300 acres in 2003. The Hastings’ crop also has downsized, from 20,300 acres in 2003 to 17,000 in 2005.

Growers said Hurricane Wilma disrupted southern Florida plantings when the storm brought rains and more than 100-mph winds through the Immokalee and Okeechobee area on Oct. 24. The southern Florida acreage, however, shouldn’t be down significantly from previous years, because growers said they were able to replant most of the lost acres.

Although planting had just started or was delayed in anticipation of the storm, growers had to wait more than a week in some cases before fields drained.

JANUARY POTATO STOCKS

On Jan. 1, the nation’s potato stocks were 7% lower than at the same time last year, with 219 million cwt., according to the USDA’s agricultural statistics service. The potatoes in storage, however, represent 59% of the overall production, which is unchanged from the same figure a year ago.

From Dec. 1 to Jan. 1, Idaho shipped 9.5 million cwt. With 74.5 million cwt. on hand at the time, Idaho shippers had 10 million cwt. fewer than last January.