IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — The Idaho potato crop should be bigger than last year’s, with an estimated 319,000 acres being harvested in the state — up at least 15,000 from last year. However, most of that extra acreage is headed for processing, leaving the fresh crop largely unchanged.

The estimate is still down from just two years ago, when Idaho harvested 350,000 acres, and in the early 2000s, when the state had more than 400,000.

Late August, growers were still a little disappointed in how size was coming along.

“Our growers are saying the potatoes are smooth right now, but size isn’t quite where we want it,” said Jamey Higham, vice president of business development and foodservice for Potandon Produce LLC. “We had a wet spring, so some got in a little late.”

The most critical time for growers is the first three weeks of September, when the potatoes start growing rapidly, doubling in size every 10 days. Growers will leave potatoes in the ground as long as they can to let them gain size, while being cautious to make sure they are able to get everything harvested before the first frost.

Despite some hail damage, Idaho potato shippers expect good yields

Ashley Bentley

Kent Sutton, general manager of Rexburg, Idaho-based Bench Mark Potato Co. Inc., digs up a few russet burbanks late August, a few weeks before harvest. The potatoes were a little smaller than he'd like to see that time of year, he says, but quality looked great.

Weather conditions were nearly ideal those three weeks, many grower-shippers say, so quality and yields should be good.

“We’re packing probably an above average crop as far as quality,” said Kevin Searle, general manager of Shelley-based GPOD of Idaho. “The last three weeks of weather were very conducive to potatoes bulking up, so I think we’re going to have a good mix,” he said Sept. 29.

GPOD distributes mainly to wholesale terminal markets primarily east of the Mississippi River, Searle said.

“I think everybody’s cautiously optimistic that demand’s going to recover from last year,” said Ryan Wahlen, salesman for L&M Cos., Raleigh, N.C., which markets potatoes for Pleasant Valley Potato Inc., Aberdeen. “We had the smallest supply in thirty years, and promotions didn’t reflect that. Demand was way off because of the recession.”

A few midsummer hailstorms damaged about 25,000 acres in the Blackfoot area and areas east and north of Idaho Falls. The estimated damage to those acres appears to be less than was predicted, though.

Kevin Stanger, vice president of sales and marketing for Wada Farms Marketing Group, said Wada had just started digging in some of its damaged fields the week of Sept. 21.

“The damage is not as bad as we expected,” Stanger said. “Some came back okay, and in some cases they are off, but some are better than we thought.”

Wahlen said yields would be slightly off because of hail damage in Pleasant Valley’s area. Higham said some of its growers also were affected by the hail and could have smaller and rougher potatoes.

“The hail affected yield, but not the quality of the potatoes,” Wahlen said. “But there’s no question the yields are way off because the plants didn’t recover.”

Stanger said his growers were just starting to dig russet burbanks the third week of September, but Wada waits until after the “sweat,” about 30 days after harvest, to start shipping burbanks, for the most part. Only one of its sheds was packing burbanks as of late August, he said.

“Average quality looks to be great,” Stanger said. “Overall, I think we’re pretty excited.”

GPOD of Idaho started packing burbanks the week of Sept. 21 straight out of the fields.

The early russet norkotah crop came off larger than expected, many grower-shippers said, and the market quickly reacted with falling f.o.b.s. Searle said russet prices hadn’t yet stabilized when he started packing russet burbanks.

“But for the burbanks, prices have come out better than the norkotahs,” Searle said.

Searle said burbanks were running about $1.50 higher.

“Having extremely large cartons to start with in the norkotah crop has hurt the market,” Stanger said. “As we get into other fields, it will level out, get more normal.”

Higham said getting the market to stabilize at some level is important to make buyers more comfortable.

Wahlen said he thinks the crashing market is because of demand, not necessarily to a crop of large norkotahs.

“There seems to be a rush to the early market now because the harvest market the last few years has been so high,” Wahlen said. “There are more growers throwing their hats in the mix on the early stuff than normal.”

David Beesley, president of Snake River Plains Potatoes, Ucon, said he thinks the size profile has a lot to do with the market situation.

“I think the popular opinion is a pretty jaundiced view,” Beesley said. “People are looking at the other 15,000 acres and broadly accepting a view that the market is going to be pretty weak.”

Beesley said he does not share that view.

“The hailstorms took a lot of potatoes, and yields will be down,” Beesley said. “And delays and frost always take some potatoes.”

There was a larger gap than normal between crops last year, which meant higher pricing when the Idaho crop came in a little late. That may have been an incentive for some growers to try to have potatoes at harvest time this year, Beesley said.

“For some, it’s part of a business plan,” Beesley said. “People grow for this time of year.”

Beesley said his plant runs norkotahs until burbanks become available and then runs with burbanks the rest of the year.

Snake River Plains started packing Aug. 27. Beesley said Idaho usually has norkotahs through the first part of March and then wraps up the rest of the season exclusive to burbanks.

Wahlen said Pleasant Valley tends to skew toward larger potatoes, largely because of a heavy supply of norkotahs.

“I would say some of the newer norkotahs have higher solids, closer to a russet burbank in solid content,” Wahlen said.

The market will be forced to rebound once potatoes are in storage, Wahlen said.

“I believe it will rebound because input costs are so high,” Wahlen said. “Once potatoes go into storage, they’re not going to open storage back up just for a loss.”

Overall, Idaho should be strong in potatoes again this year, and there should be many opportunities for promotions, grower-shippers agree.

“I think it’ll be a good year to do promotions at both foodservice and retail,” Stanger said.