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Idaho potato crop returns to normal volume after record yields in 2009

by Rand Green | September 13, 2010
The 2009 Idaho potato crop may not have been the largest on record, due to acreage reductions, but it did the highest yield per acre on record, and that "resulted in a very large crop ... significantly larger than we anticipated," according to Frank Mir, president of the Idaho Potato Commission in Eagle, ID.

Other potato-producing areas in the United States also had large 2009 crops, which made moving the Idaho crop all the more challenging.

“The good news is, we have been able to move the entire crop with our programs,” Mr. Muir said Sept. 8. “We are into new crop now, and there is ... no carryover from last year's crop to this year’s crop, so that is a very good thing.”

During the 2009-10 marketing season, which ended in August, Idaho gained about a four-point increase in market share compared to the prior year, giving Idaho 34 percent of the U.S. potato market. That kind of a market- share increase in one season “is pretty impressive when you are the market leader,” he said.

The 2010 harvest is expected to bring more normal volume. “The acreage is going to be about 295,000 acres,” down from around 320,000 the prior year, “so that acreage is about the right size that we would want” to match demand, he said. Yields appear to be about the average of the last three or four years. “Quality looks extremely good. The growing conditions have been good for a good-quality crop.”

The crop’s size profile “may skew a little bit smaller overall” than last year, he added.

While the weather this year has been good for quality, a cool spring did delay the crop, so growers have been postponing the harvest a little later than usual in order to give the potatoes more time to size. However, a frost in some areas on the nights of Sept. 5 and 6 — the effects of which were still being evaluated at this writing — may have caused enough vine damage that potatoes in those particular fields will stop growing. That would not affect the quality of the potatoes, but it could mean smaller potatoes and less tonnage from those fields.

The frost will probably “shorten up the supplies just a little bit because of [fewer] growing days,” Bruce Crapo, chief financial officer of Sun-Glo of Idaho Inc. in Rexburg, ID, said Tuesday, Sept. 7. But “it is definitely not a disaster.”

As of the week of Sept. 5, the harvest of the new Russet Norkotah crop was underway, and most growers interviewed by The Produce News expected to start digging Russet Burbanks in early October.

“Right now, we are not in the new crop yet,” Ryan Bybee, sales manager for GPOD of Idaho in Shelley, ID, said Sept. 7. GPOD specializes in Burbanks. On test digs, “quality so far looks good,” and there appears to be “a variation of size,” he said. “We ended [the 2009 season] on a good note and hope to carry that through starting with the new Burbank crop.”

Currently, “the count market is very firm, and the consumer market is so-so,” he added.

Les Alderete, director of grower relations for L&M Cos. Inc., who works out of the Raleigh, NC-based company’s Idaho Falls, ID, office, said Sept. 7 that the early Norkotahs were on the smaller side, but he expected them to improve as the harvest continued. They will be larger, he expects, than the Burbanks that will follow.

“Yields are kind of back to normal, nothing like last year’s record-setting yields,” said Kevin Stanger, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC in Idaho Falls, ID. “So we are expecting a good market and good quality to be able to ship out to our customers.”

“It looks like we are going to be peaking on smaller sizes” unless warm, sunny weather over the next 21 days bring size up, said Jim Richter, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Wilcox Fresh in Idaho Falls. A smaller size profile “will be good for retail bag promotions,” he said.

Idaho also grows red potatoes, yellow potatoes, purple potatoes and other specialty varieties such as fingerlings.

Those currently “represent probably about five percent of our market” and growing, IPC’s Mr. Muir said. “I think we are managing that just right. ... We have developed a very good reputation for those specialty varieties.” The intent, he said, is “to provide a top-end product in those varieties, and I think our growers are doing an outstanding job developing them.”