(March 11, 2:32 p.m.) In a case of recent success being no guarantee of future success, potato industry officials are trying to get a message through loud and clear to growers: Don’t plant more spuds than last year.

Even keeping acreage right where it is, they say, could be trouble.

In recent years, efforts by the Salt Lake City-based United Potato Growers of America and its state affiliates led to reduced potato acreage across North America and boosting f.o.b.s. According to the Perishables Group, West Dundee Ill., average retail prices for the category rose 16% in 2008.

Now United Potato, the Idaho Falls-based United Potato Growers of Idaho, the Manitoba-based Potato Marketing Association of North America and others are warning growers who see dollar signs dancing in front of their eyes not to get carried away.

Other industry members also are preaching caution.

“My approach has always been to encourage growers to be reasonable and rational,” said Frank Muir, chief executive officer of the Idaho Potato Commission, Eagle. “If you’ve been growing a certain number of acres and decide to increase it by 10-15%, unless there’s someone who’s reducing their’s by 10-15%, it’s not going to help you.”

Muir actually may be something of a moderate on the issue. At the extreme end are people like Joe Guenthner, agricultural economics professor at the University of Idaho, who predicts that even if growers freeze their acreage this year they could see significantly lower returns next season — assuming that yields, which were low last year in several major growing states, return to normal levels.

Guenthner’s forecast “seems a little dire to me,” Muir said. Nevertheless, given what typically happens after a boom year, he said growers will have to be prudent heading into 2009-10.

“If you haven’t been growing potatoes, this isn’t a good time to start,” he said. “If you do get in, do it gradually and maybe partner with an existing grower.”

The outlook for next season could vary widely by region, said Tom Lundgren, owner and president of Spud City Sales LLC, Stevens Point, Wis.

“If acreage stays the same from Wisconsin shippers, Wisconsin is going to be fine,” he said. “I’m concerned about other growing regions. My fear is overproduction nationwide.”

According to one index, Wisconsin potato growers have enjoyed the best returns nationwide the past three years, Lundgren said. In the second week of March, some Badger State spuds were going for $17 per cwt., $7 higher than those from Western states, he said.

That recent success may provide some insulation to Wisconsin growers, should volumes rise and markets tank next fall and winter.

But “if it gets real ugly,” Lundgren said, everyone would be affected. He said it would be a shame if growers’ recent run of good luck, following years of market doldrums, came to an end because of growers who decided to give spuds a whirl to try to make a quick buck.

“Understand, growers have made money four out of the past seven years,” he said. “Historically, they might break even or lose money for eight years and make money one year. The guys who have been in it, who have stuck through it in the hard times, they should benefit.”

Idaho Falls-based Wada Farms Marketing Group will have a better handle on its acreage projections in the next two months, said Kevin Stanger, senior vice president of sales and marketing.

But overproduction, Stanger said, is never far from grower-shippers’ minds.

“I’ve heard rumblings, and I don’t have a good feel if people are crying wolf or if it’s legitimate, but it’s always a major concern every year,” he said.