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Acreage for California new potatoes holds steady

by Brian Gaylord | May 10, 2009
California 2009 new potato acreage is estimated at 8,375 acres in Kern County, a barely noticeable increase from last year's 8,362 acres. The acreage is an improvement, however, since the 2008 acreage numbers showed a nearly 10 percent decline compared with 2007, according to published data from the Kern County Department of Agriculture. Kern Countys acreage numbers stood at 9,268 acres in 2007.

The figures exclude the category the countys department of ag has for "chippers" or potato chips, a category that is not used in the calculations by the Kern Produce Shippers Association. Also, one major Kern County packingshed does not publicly release its acreage and therefore is not included in the totals.

The 2009 acreage marks only the second time since 2003 that Kern County potato acreage has increased. In 2007, acreage increased nearly 6 percent over 2006 before falling back again in 2008. The 2007 season reversed what had been a steady year-over-year decline in acreage dating back to 2003.

Russet acreage showed the biggest increase in Kern County this year, jumping from 3,292 acres in 2008 to 3,516 acres in 2009.

Edison, CA-based Kirschenman Enterprises Inc. reflects that level of increase in russet acreage.

Wayde Kirschenman, co-owner Kirschenman Enterprises, said that the company is up about 10 percent in russet acreage this year.

In these challenging economic times, there is not a lot of expansion at Kirschenman Enterprises, but the company is not cutting back its business either, Mr. Kirschenman told The Produce News in early May. The companys acreage in red, white and Yukon Gold potatoes is on a par with last year, he said.

Kirschenman Enterprises began harvesting potatoes in Kern County the final week of April. The Kern County spring-summer potato deal typically runs from May through July with no potato storage. Kern County growers compete with Idaho, Washington state and other potato storage areas.

Mr. Kirschenman is a member of the Kern Produce Shippers Association. In the mid-1990s, Kern County growers and shippers organized a marketing program to promote California new potatoes, but the effort was underfunded and disbanded several years ago.

We felt that you have to put a lot of money into [a marketing program] or do nothing, he said. The program started with a dozen or so members; today, Kern County has seven or eight potato growers. Several growers including Kirschenman Enterprises have banded together to work jointly with the railroads to determine railcar capacity for this year.

Lee Frankel, president and chief executive officer of the Salt Lake City-based United Potato Growers of America, said that while Kern Countys acreage in russet potatoes is up about 10 percent compared with last year, russet acreage still is well below historic levels. Growers didnt increase back to 2006 levels in Kern County, Mr. Frankel said.

Growers [industrywide] made more money on russets [last year], he added. However, to their own detriment, potato growers in a number of regions did not have faith in United Potato Growers estimates and did not plan accordingly, he said. United Potato Growers monthly estimates from the various potato regions help growers make decisions on how much acreage to plant of the various potato varieties.

Many potato growers looked at the acreage estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If USDAs estimates were too high, that helped increase United Potato Growers credibility, Mr. Frankel said.

A growers packout may be lower or higher than desired based on which estimates the operation is using. Also, there may be more of a market for potatoes than growers anticipate, he said.

Theres a belief that the market always acts rationally, but that is not always the case, Mr. Frankel said.

Kern County potato growers have taken advantage of their cooperative status, Mr. Frankel said. Time will tell whether they have accounted for appropriate potato variety volumes and didnt respond to kill any decent market by overproduction, Mr. Frankel said.

Floods in eastern Canada and Maine have affected potato volumes in those areas and have consequences that carry into the first half of the Kern County market, Mr. Frankel said.

United Potato Growers has taken to doing drive-by and fly-over calculations of potato acreage in various potato growing regions. It gives us a basis to help define whats out there, Mr. Frankel said. The effort minimizes the margin of error compared with relying solely on data from agricultural statistics services, he said.

So far, potato acreage in Idaho is all that United Potato Growers has tackled with its drive-by and fly-over calculations. Idaho potato growers welcome the effort.

Kern County acreage may not receive the level of scrutiny targeted primarily at potato acreage that in addition to Idaho includes Colorado, Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington. A 5 percent error in acreage estimates in Idaho has a decided effect, whereas a similar discrepancy in Kern County would not, Mr. Frankel said.