IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — United Potato Growers of Idaho projects a 4.6% increase in the planted acreage of this fall's crop, but at least two-thirds of that is for the processing market.

The cooperative released the estimate July 8 during its summer meeting, and chief executive officer and president Jerry Wright said the slight increase in non-contracted acreage - about 5,000 of the overall 315,000 acres planted - shows growers are keeping acreage in check, which is a goal of the group.

What remains to be seen, however, is the effect of a series of hailstorms and heavy rains in late June and early July.

Although 25,250 acres in eastern Idaho were damaged, particularly with a June 21 (Father's Day) hailstorm, growers say they are still assessing the situation. The storm swept from Raft River through American Falls, the Fort Hall Indian Reservation and South Blackfoot. Best estimates were that about 10,000 acres were seriously damaged and half or more of those planted fields destroyed with "nothing left," Wright said.

On the Fourth of July, another destructive storm went through American Falls, Tyhee and Chubbuck, ravaging half those fields. On July 7, more damage was afflicted in Bonneville and South Jefferson counties in the Upper Snake River Valley, particularly hitting Osgood, Hamer and Ammon.

"Trying to assess the yield and how many acres will be harvested is anybody's guess, to be honest," Wright said, noting some damaged areas showed new growth a week later.

National estimates

Idaho potato growers should ship about 30 million cwt. in 2009-10, about the same as the previous year - which was the smallest crop in 14 years.

Washington and Wisconsin plantings are down about 11,000 acres and 1,000 acres, respectively, but Colorado could be up 1,500 acres. Oregon is expected to be flat.

Idaho's Grower Return Index or the actual dollars paid to growers was about $7 per hundredweight from January to June this year. From last September to December, it was about $11.75 or up 40 percent from the previous year's average of $6.88 GRI.

In 2004, 2005 and 2006, the GRI was $3.08, $7.09 and $6.65, respectively. The 2008 GRI total average of $9.60 was the highest in the last 25 to 30 years, Wright said, adding he expects the GRI to range between $6.50 to $7.50 all year or at break-even levels.

A 400-acre grower in Wisconsin made $500,000 more for his potatoes than the same grower in Idaho last year, he mentioned. Gem State growers shipped one million more bags of potatoes than the previous year, which meant Idaho gave away $30 million, Wright said.

United Potato Growers of Idaho is still awaiting second-quarter data to gauge whether the economy is recovering. Potato consumption in restaurants continues to decline. Meanwhile, McDonald's and other fast-food restaurants are decoupling french fries from their value meals.

"As an industry, we're flying blind. We're driving this bus looking in the rearview mirror. We're looking back a quarter," Wright said.