PLOVER, WI — As September digging swings into full tilt, Wisconsin's potato crop is expected to be of very high quality.
At Okray Family Farms Inc., located here, President Mike Finnessy said Wisconsin's potato crop this year "looks like much higher quality. Last year there was a high percentage of culls. There was a lot of grade-out. This year we have a very good quality crop and the yields are equal to or better than last year."
Bob Johnson, president of Katz Produce Sales LLC, based in Rosholt, WI, characterized the 2013 Wisconsin potato crop as having a really heavy set. "If we could sell vines, we'd all be millionaires," he said. "Wisconsin will have a high-volume crop, but the size profile can't be too big with a set like that; consumer packs should be fairly plentiful.
"That's not the case on bigger-sized cartons,” Johnson said. “But Washington is the exact opposite. The two states could balance each other." Idaho's potato crop size profile is similar to Wisconsin.
Johnson noted that the long-term forecast through August was "not one day over 80 degrees and every night 50, or a few degrees warmer. That's as ideal as you can get."
Potato prices were very high when The Produce News toured the Badger State in early August. But on Aug. 9, Finnessy said prices were quickly falling to the norm. "In the last two days, reds have fallen from $42 to $30 per cwt." He said no red potatoes were available in July and the price was too high. "Now the price is heading to be too low."
Russet prices were inching down at a less dramatic rate. Whatever happens in the near term, "I expect a good market in the winter," he said.
Finnessy indicated that through the summer, potatoes were so scarce that retail chains had nothing to offer at promotable prices. "For the chains, now at least there is availability to run an ad. Retailers will follow as the prices go down, so there should be good pricing for consumers."
Johnson said in early August that demand for potatoes was strong with short national supplies. Some Wisconsin growers were harvesting smaller spuds for immediate high prices — a sacrifice over higher volume at a later time. The trade-off, of course, was known payoff of high prices on a small early volume.
In the first week of August, produce buyers were unable to "source any other place" at lower prices, Johnson said. "Supplies are really, really, really tight."
He added that the old crop in Idaho had gone a little flat. Meanwhile, new crops in Idaho and Wisconsin were not quite to the point of harvest volume.
"Supplies are ridiculously short. The prices are higher than anyone dreamed they would be," Johnson continued. "Prices are almost at record levels. That doesn't help consumption any. Now the retail prices are reflecting the costs."
Johnson said some retailers were charging $6 or $7 for five pounds of red potatoes and $4.99 in stores for five-pounds of russets.
"Will the retail price follow when f.o.b. costs come down? The (f.o.b.) costs won't stay this high for long," he said.
As those numbers inevitably drop, Wisconsin growers "will have the option of selling out of the field or put them in storage," Johnson noted. "If they're too cheap they will put them in storage." About Sept. 10 or 15 "if they're not moving, they'll go into storage."
In the Wisconsin northlands, "when Jack Frost comes, that will be the end of the deal," as far as most of the harvesting is concerned. "After October 5 you're on borrowed time," hoping that a frost doesn't freeze unharvested potatoes. There have been unusual years that there was no freezing of Wisconsin soil until Thanksgiving.
Johnson projected that if retail prices stay high for too long, the storage deal could run late into 2014.
In the first days of August A-sized red potatoes were selling in the low $40s and B-sized potatoes were in the low $50s. "The prices were in the mid-$20s a year ago." Johnson indicated that $30 for a 100 pounds of red potatoes is a typical early-August price.
Wisconsin's red potato harvest would enter "big volume" in mid-August, Johnson said. Russet harvest in Wisconsin would go into large volumes between Aug. 19 and 26. "In September, growers will be deciding whether to pack or store."