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Late start may yield dividends for Florida potato growers

by Chip Carter | March 18, 2010
TAMPA, FL -- While abnormal weather in Florida this winter -- including two weeks of sub-freezing temperatures -- cost the state's potato growers some plants and early-season sales opportunities, it also created a market window that bodes well for the spring crop.

With Florida's fresh crop delayed, consumers will take a bigger bite out of storage potato supplies, in theory propping up the market when Florida potatoes finally come on between April 1 and the middle of the month.

Ray Lamar of Eagle Island Farms in Okeechobee, FL, told The Produce News in mid-March, "We've got 600 acres ready to go. We're in a gap due to the freeze, but we'll start back here in the middle of April with hopefully a normal crop. It should come on OK for us on this second go-round here. It's a good time for potatoes. We're hoping for a good deal here, good prices and yields and quality, too. Starting in April, I believe that's going to be the case. It's going to be coming on, it sure is."

Said Gary Allen of Southeast Sales, which represents growers Robertson Bros. of Okeechobee, Sill Farms of Punta Gorda, FL, and Palm City, FL-based Agri- Gator Inc., "We're expecting a normal crop for April. For the March deal, we knew potatoes were going to be tighter. There's been a lot of pressure on the storage potatoes. We've been covering orders, so we feel like the market is firm and has the potential to rise, particularly in light of the fact that the weather has caused the north Florida crop to be pushed back."

Arnold Mack of Mack Farms in Lake Wales, FL, was a bit more cautious about the market. "There are quite a few russet potatoes in storage, so that will hold down prices and keep it in check. The market won't go up much -- if it did we would drive them more so to the russet potatoes," Mr. Mack said. "Where we're at now is probably in that neighborhood where we don't want to do anything to chase away any business. But when you see a Florida potato, you know you're eating it within a matter of days or a short week or two from the time it's been harvested."

Added Mr. Allen, "On a market like this, it never hurts to have new crop. Most of our customers are looking forward to April more than they have in the past."

Meanwhile, in southern Florida, potato production came on in fairly normal fashion. Doug Miller of Six L's Farms in Immokalee told The Produce News in mid-March, "This is the third week of us running. We've had good volume and size has been good. We'll be rolling right on through. We didn't exactly have a skip [and] we didn't get hurt as bad on the freeze as some of these other guys. Our yields aren't 100 percent, but we're creeping right back up. First week of April it should be business as usual with plenty of potatoes."

Six L's may have gotten a jump start on other Florida farms, but Mr. Miller said that all the state's potato growers could be in for a very good spring. "We're hoping the light supplies of Florida potatoes [in the early season] will drain the supply of storage potatoes, so when we do come with potatoes the month of April, storage is dried up and people are coming to us for them," he said.

Six L's started growing potatoes in Florida last year, with an initial crop of 1,000 acres. This year, that total has climbed to 1,300, indicative of the state's growing importance as a potato supplier.

Florida traditionally has been a mainstay for red and white potatoes; yellows have come on strong in recent years, and now specialties like fingerlings are making their presence felt as well.

Said Mr. Mack, who has been growing potatoes in the middle of the state for more than two decades, "Our reds and whites are pretty much the same as last year; our fingerlings have been increased probably about 15 percent, and we increased our yellow flesh potatoes by about 15 percent. Our business seems to warrant the increase [since] demand and sales on those two items are increasing a little each year. We came up a little short last year and the year before on those."

Mr. Mack said that early-season Florida potato production is the lightest he has seen since 1989, the last time the state suffered a major freeze.

"By mid-April and about six weeks from that point, we should be in a normal crop with real good yields," he said. "This was our lightest March harvest in a long time. It turns in cycles. We went along there four or five years and really didn't have any freezes, not enough to hurt the potatoes. Last year and this year, we got hurt some."

"The old potato crop that we normally compete against, with us not having hardly any volume at all in Florida early season, allowed them to get rid of their better potatoes, and all they have left is a very small percent of good potatoes," Mr. Mack said. "It's going to get even more drastic as far as the old potatoes on the reds, whites and yellows, so it looks like we'll have a decent demand for our crop. We're not going to be full blast, it will be down some from our normal, so you would think we could get a decent market for the crop."