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Questions abound for Eastern Shore potato market

by Tad Thompson | June 17, 2010
The possibilities are numerous for the marketing outcome of potatoes harvested this summer on the Eastern Shore.

Grower-shippers cited a variety of factors that will influence each other as the Eastern Shore plans to begin its spud harvest in late June.

At Dublin Farms, a potato grower-shipper based in Horntown, VA, David Hickman, Dublin vice president, said May 21, "I think the market will be fairly good. If North Carolina has its normal orderly marketing and moves a good part of their crop in June and the first week of July, I think July should have fairly good prices. We should have a reasonably good market in June and July."

Mr. Hickman added that the market presence of late storage western potatoes "is always an issue for us even though they compete with round white prices. It is hard to have a tremendous difference between old- and new-crop prices. The consumer tends to buy the lower-priced item, which keeps a lid on the new-crop price." On the other hand, he noted, "By the time summer rolls around, a lot of people are looking for thin-skinned red potatoes and yellow or thin-skinned white potatoes. The new crop can always command a premium, but if the old are considerably lower, it is hard to market against them."

As of May 21, "movement in the west is pretty good now. Probably the freeze in south Florida last winter helped the old crop move out; the delay in the Florida harvest gave the old crop another month to move. In that respect, the late crop in the south has benefited. Now Florida is harvesting, and their challenge is to move their crop before their window closes," Mr. Hickman said. "The challenge for Florida will be moving their crop in a four-week period instead of their normal six- to seven-week period. That could be the challenge for the market on the whole East Coast. If Florida is out of the way pretty much by mid-June, then we probably will have a pretty good market."

Eastern Shore potato production "is shaping up to be a more normal growing season than I thought it would have been early. In the first three months of the year, we had 12 inches of rain above normal," Mr. Hickman said. "So we had issues with planting. Now we have warm days, cool nights and good growing conditions."

At Thomas E. Moore Inc., a potato shipper based in Dover, DE, Mark Hodson, sales manager, offered complementary observations. The outcome of the potato market on the Eastern Shore "depends on how things are shaping up. In north Florida, there is a size profile issue now." There are many small- sized Florida potatoes because of "adverse conditions in the growing season. Now there is an excessive amount of B's and creamer size."

Mr. Hodson added, "Because of the size profile, there is a variation in pricing because of the smaller product. 'B' and creamer sizes normally have a higher value, but because there are so many, prices are reduced just to move them. That could change in two or three weeks, based on what we're dealing with now. The market in Florida is fairly strong, especially on Yukon Gold. I expect it to stay fairly strong coming up the East Coast."

Mr. Hodson said that Idaho's good storage crop movement brought an increase in count-potato prices. Those volumes "are starting to deplete, and there is not an overabundance of large product." There were still East Coast retail promotions of smaller-sizes of western potatoes packed in consumer bags.

Mr. Hodson continued to explain the complex potato market scenario. "Because of pricing on consumer packs out of the west and stronger East Coast markets for whites, reds and Yukons, there is more motivation for retailers to promote western russets over eastern varieties. We are still up against that."

Mr. Hodson said May 21, "It's too early to predict" the outcome of the Virginia and North Carolina crops, "but for all practical purposes, we should have decent crops from those two regions. It should be OK."

(For more on the Eastern Shore, see the June 21, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)