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
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
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
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
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