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Red River Valley potato volume affected by dicey weather

by Lora Abcarian | October 03, 2011
The Red River Valley is the nation's leading producer of red potatoes and also grows russets, yellows and whites. North Dakota is the nation's fourth-largest potato producer, and Minnesota is the sixth-largest. (Photo courtesy of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association)

Overall potato volume coming from the Red River Valley could be down as much as 25 percent in 2011. Ted Kreis, marketing director for the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association in East Grand Forks, MN, said that Mother Nature is directly responsible for the decrease.

"We had a cold, wet spring," Mr. Kreis told The Produce News Sept. 20. Generally speaking, the valley's growers plant potatoes in May, although activity can extend into June. Mr. Kreis got a first-hand look at the situation when he drove through the northern Red River Valley during the third week of June. He said that rainfall drowned out some acreage, making it impossible for growers to plant all available acreage.

On June 28, Mr. Kreis issued a statement which put the situation in perspective. The northwest corner of North Dakota was particularly hard-hit by heavy rainfall.

According to Mr. Kreis, "unplanted acres due to wet conditions are off the charts" in the area. "When the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] number came out this week, it wasn't a shock to read some of the numbers," he stated. "An estimated 6.3 million acres of North Dakota's 28.2 million acres of cropland will not get planted. That crushes the old record of 3.9 million acres set in 1999. Combined with unplanted acres with planted crops that will be lost due to drown-out, total losses could easily reach eight million acres, or 28 percent of the total crop."

He reported that 409,000 acres in the six counties bordering the Red River were not planted due to precipitation. Mr. Kreis said this represents approximately 10 percent of the overall crop. Although more than 90 percent of the potatoes were planted in the valley, he went on to say drown-out and seed rot were a concern.

Condition reports released this past June showed that 83 percent of Minnesota's potatoes was listed in good or excellent condition. At that time, 51 percent of North Dakota's was rated as in good or excellent condition.

The region boasts approximately 250 potato growers growing a mix of potato varieties. The Red River Valley is the nation's largest producer of red potatoes. Minnesota and North Dakota also enjoy national ranking when it comes to overall potato production. "North Dakota is fourth, and Minnesota is sixth [nationally]," Mr. Kreis stated. Both states produce potatoes for chip, fresh and process market sectors.

Fresh potatoes account for 25 percent of overall potato production in the Red River Valley. This season, Mr. Kreis said 22,000 acres were planted for fresh production. Last season, a total of 4.14 million hundredweight of potatoes were produced for the fresh market.

Vine killing began in September. Harvesting sometimes stretches into November. "The potatoes are pretty well insulated underground," Mr. Kreis noted. He was asked about product sizing for 2011. "We don't have a real good handle [on size]," he replied. "We're expecting a little of everything."

Although potatoes from the region are shipped throughout the United States, Mr. Kreis said that the majority of fresh potatoes are sent eastward. Product is also sold in Canada.

Mr. Kreis said pricing for reds is good this season. "There is a shortage of red potatoes," he stated. "So prices are strong."

On Sept. 20, he said that bulk reds in 2,000-pound totes were selling in the high $20-range per hundredweight. Pricing was also strong in 2010, when potatoes garnered $15 to $18.50 per hundredweight at the same time of year.

On Sept. 26, the Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided some data on September potato movement from the Red River Valley in its publication, National Potato and Onion Report. According to AMS, supplies were light, and demand was fairly good. Pricing for Market Size B product was slightly higher, and pricing for other sizes was steady.

Looking at the Red River Valley, AMS also reported that Minnesota had shipped 15 truckloads of potatoes, and North Dakota had shipped 55 truckloads as of Sept. 26.

The Northern Plains Potato Growers Association plans to exhibit at Fresh Summit 2011 at Booth 3047. Mr. Kreis said that grower representatives and personnel from several of the region's wash plants will be available to talk about this season's crop.