What a difference two years can make.

In the summer of 2008, U.S. potato grower-shippers were scrambling to find ways to make the 2007-08 crop last until the new-crop harvests in late summer and fall.

Potato growers look ahead to 2011

Andy Nelson
Markets Editor

Some shippers with three decades or more experience under their belts were saying they had never seen anything like it.

Shippers who chose to ignore low volume projections from the Salt Lake City-based United Potato Growers of America made deals with retailers for aggressive promotions, and, as a result, many were faced with the specter of actually running out — something unthinkable in an industry chronically plagued with overproduction.

Prices that summer topped $20 for 50-pound cartons of russets size 40-70 from Idaho and other states, almost double the price of the year before.

Now it’s the summer of 2010, and grower-shippers around the country are coming off a marketing season that reminded too many of the Bad Old Days before United Potato started talking growers into lowering acreage to boost markets.

The old line about “the best laid plans of mice and men” is perhaps no more applicable than in the agriculture industry, and bumper yields last year meant that no matter how good growers were about cutting back on acreage, if Mother Nature decided to produce too many spuds for the market to bear, nothing could stop her.

But heading into the 2010-11 season, there’s a note of cautious optimism out there in the industry. Shippers I’ve talked to in recent weeks from a variety of growing areas have been more optimistic about marketing conditions heading into the new-crop harvests.

The first point shippers raise concerns simple probability: The chances of bumper-crop-level yields happening two years in a row are fairly slim.

Second, while detailed summer field surveys have yet to be completed in several top-producing states, it seems safe to say that acreages will be down from last season in many regions.

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service drives home how much shippers are counting on a comeback.

The all-potato price for June, at $8.28 per cwt., was down $1.20 from the year before at the same time, and 29 cents lower than in May 2010.

Another recent report, from the USDA’s Economic Research Service, sounded a similar note. From January through April, grower prices for fresh spuds averaged 18% lower than during the 2008-09 marketing season.

The United Potato Growers of America has a good plan and good numbers to make that plan work, and with a little better luck from Mother Nature, spud growers should look forward to a better season.

E-mail anelson@thepacker.com

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