U.S. growers planted a few more potatoes this year, but industry officials and shippers aren’t overly worried about slumping markets.

About 933,000 acres of fall potatoes were planted this year, up from 931,000 acres in 2008, according to a July 10 acreage estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

While it’s still early in the game, the USDA estimate suggests 2009 spud markets could find a nice balance between supply and demand, said Lee Frankel, president of Salt Lake City-based United Potato Growers of America.

Frankel and other industry leaders had warned growers earlier in the year not to get too aggressive with plantings following last year’s strong markets.

“At this point, acreage is in the ballpark of where it should be,” he said.

While yields are still a wild card this early in the season, based on plantings, the industry has a good chance of finding a level where, on the one hand, growers make a profit and, on the other, customers have plenty of promotable product, Frankel said.

Another positive sign heading into harvests is new market data that shows demand for potatoes has picked up at both retail and foodservice in recent months, Frankel said.

Tracy Fowler, director of sales for potatoes and onions at Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc., reported strong demand for North Carolina and Washington spuds in mid-July, and predicted that would carry over into the fall crops.

“I think we’re looking at it as a great marketing year,” he said. “Acreage has kind of been in check, and with the damage from the hail, that checks it, too.”

Hail in Idaho in July has potentially damaged thousands of acres of potatoes, though growers and officials say it’s too soon to gauge the extent of the damage.

Idaho is almost solely responsible for the acreage jump this year. According to the USDA, Gem State acreage is expected to jump from 305,000 to 320,000, though that number is disputed by Idaho Falls-based United Potato Growers of Idaho, which puts the total at 315,000.
And most of that increase will likely be in processing spuds, Jerry Wright, United of Idaho’s president and chief executive officer, said at the group’s July 8 summer meeting.

The only other states among the top ten spud producers reporting an acreage increase this year are Michigan (43,000 to 45,000 acres) and Oregon (35,300 to 36,000).

Acreage declines were reported in Washington (155,000 to 145,000); North Dakota (82,000 to 80,000); Colorado (57,000 to 56,000); Minnesota (50,000 to 47,000); and New York (18,000 to 17,100).

States expected to have similar acreage in 2009 include Wisconsin (63,500); Maine (56,000); and Pennsylvania (10,000).