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Potato trivia can remind us of not such good times

by Christina DiMartino | November 02, 2010
If you're prone to often reflect back to the good old days, a June 22, 1936, article published in Time magazine may shake you back to the good old present day. The article, headlined "Business: Potato Flurry," reported that potato prices had been skyrocketing for weeks in the United States and in Canada as a result of the greatest potato shortage since 1919. It also noted a scarcity of yellow turnips, a common substitute when potatoes were short.

The year prior — 1935 — stored potatoes were retailing for as low as 75 cents for a 100-pound bag. At the same time in 1936, the price for that bag had risen to more than $4.25. New-crop potato increases were even higher.

The article stated, “To poverty-stricken farmers in all 48 States, this boom meant undreamed of profits. A barrel of potatoes costs about $2 to grow, another 75¢ to dig, pack [and] ship. Prices were so low on the Eastern Shore last year that desperate farmers hijacked and destroyed truckloads of other growers’ potatoes going to market.”

The article further reported that in Maine, the then No. 1 potato-producing state, a 165-pound barrel of potatoes sold wholesale for as little as 10 cents, resulting in some 10,000 carloads being dumped into swamps. This was the situation that led Congress to pass the Warren Potato Control Act, a federal action that imposed a burdensome tax on all noncontract potatoes produced, making them noncompetitive in terms of price and therefore farmer participation.

The article further noted that for the first time in the memory of West Coast produce dealers, spring potatoes were moving as far east as Manhattan in New York. Farmers of California’s Shafter area, which was producing virtually all new Western potatoes at that time, were projected to gross some $8 million from 9,000 acres — more than the entire California crop from 45,000 acres brought the year before.

“Wholesalers generally quote old potatoes in 100-pound bags, new potatoes in 165-pound barrels,” the article continued. “Retail, a five-pound bag of new potatoes now costs 29¢ as against 7¢ a year ago.”

Talk among produce professionals is that this year — 2010 — might see another potato shortage, at least a minor one. But no one expects it to result in the more than 400 percent retail price increase of 1936, nor do they anticipate any potato hijackings.

Another thing that has changed over the past nearly three-quarters of a century is where potatoes are produced in the United States. Maine is no longer the leading potato-producing state. It now ranks as No. 8 behind Idaho, Washington, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Colorado, Minnesota and Oregon, respectively.

One issue that remains the same, however, is how potato farmers continue to struggle for a profit, and even to survive.

“At the end of the day, we have to find a happy compromise of reasonable return to growers that also allows a reasonable profit to chainstores,” said Ken Gad, owner-partner of Cambridge Farms in South Easton, MA. “I think we’re very close to accomplishing it this year. The growers I’ve spoken to so far this year are not displeased with the return they’re getting. The farmer has to get a rational return so he can afford to grow potatoes again next year.”

The United States Potato Board states that as a whole, potatoes offer an exceptional value. Even compared to only the top 10 department dollar and volume contributors, and not including some higher-priced produce items like cherries or peppers in the equation, potatoes prove to be a bargain. Potatoes are priced about 50 percent lower than the average top 10 produce department category.

It is important to note the most significant change in the potato industry over the past 75 years — the drop in consumption. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, once a staple food item that was consumed on average of four bushels per person per year in the 1930s, fresh potatoes have seen consumption steadily decline since the 1950s.

From 1960 to the 2000s, consumption decreased from 81 pounds per person a year to an average of 45 pounds per person a year. The trade attributes most of the decline to the misconception that potatoes are fattening, low- carbohydrate diet trends and the time potatoes require for preparation. Still, it’s pretty hard to think about foods with sustenance without thinking about the potato. If ever there were a major potato shortage, the staple would likely be much missed.

(For more on Maine potatoes, see the Nov. 8, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)