The U.S. potato industry, besieged once again by low prices, got a shot in the arm Christmas week, when movement climbed over last year at the same time.


About 3 million 50-pound boxes were shipped nationwide the week beginning Dec. 20, up from 2.6 million boxes last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


In a season where markets have been very sluggish, the good holiday showing gave growers some confidence heading into the new year.


“Things moved pretty decently for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we hope it gives us some reason to be optimistic,” said Mike Carter, chief executive officer of Bushmans' Inc., Rosholt, Wis.


In a typical holiday season, movement climbs steadily leading up to Christmas, Carter said. This year, it was more like a last-minute explosion.


“All of the sudden, it got real, real busy at once, especially the last ten days,” he said.


Retailers were reporting similar strong movement.


“We had a great season with spuds over the holidays,” said Paul Kneeland, vice president of pro-duce and floral for Kings Super Markets Inc., Parsippany, N.J. “The quality overall was superb, which definitely lent a hand to it. And a lot of people stayed home and went back to the traditions of Christmas.”


Loose baker russets and loose yukon golds — a new offering for Kings Super, which previously sold yukons only in bags — did particularly well for the chain, Kneeland said.


Carter said it was hard to pinpoint just why movement spiked in the run-up to Christmas. Kevin Stanger, vice president of sales and marketing for Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Wada Farms Marketing Group, credited low prices, aggressive promotions and good quality.


Stanger guessed Wada Farms saw a 5-10% bump over last Christmas.


“A lot of people, retailers and foodservice, are doing everything they can to move more and fight deflation pressures,” he said.


Strong holiday sales are a culmination of a strong second half of 2009, said Seth Pemsler, vice president of retail for the Eagle-based Idaho Potato Commission.


Consumers continue to turn to potatoes as a good value during the down economy, Pemsler said. In addition, aggressive marketing by the commission has helped drive sales, particularly in Idaho, which has outperformed the industry as a whole in terms of percentage growth over last year. Prices 50% below what they were last year haven’t hurt either, he said.


Looking ahead, Pemsler expects continued strong movement, particularly with National Potato Month just around the corner in February, though he said it’s difficult to predict whether volume increases will eventually bring prices up.