“Our blood is OK, but the trucks don’t like it,” potato shipper Paul Dolan, manager of Grand Forks, ND-based Associated Potato Growers Inc., said of operating in the North Dakota cold.
Dolan said the shipping operations were accustomed to moving seamlessly ahead in the conditions. It is transportation options — by truck and rail — that have been bogged down for the Red River Valley potato business since Thanksgiving.
About 15 to 20 percent of the volume shipped by Associated Potato Growers has moved by rail this winter. The hitch has been checking rail cars to assure proper heating capacity.
Often upon delivery to the shippers, rail car heaters don’t work and service calls can’t adequately resolve the situation. As a result about one-third of the cars arriving in Grand Forks must be rejected by the shipper, Dolan said. For the rail cars capable of avoiding freezing the fresh potatoes, Associated is typically shipping to Florida and Pennsylvania via Chicago.
On the road, truck trailers carry more reliable heaters but truck availability has also been reduced since Thanksgiving.
As a result, as far as shipping volume is concerned, “December was less than what we expected. But we will go on from there,” he said. The transportation shortage set Associated Potato back a week from its plan, but the volume will be made up as the firm plans to ship from storage until June. Other Red River Valley shippers will end their season “much earlier” than that, he added.
Dolan expected North Dakota weather to warm somewhat, which would bring more normal transportation service.
In December, B-sized Red River Valley potatoes moved well, but on Jan. 6 Dolan said, “Everyone has more than enough B’s. Everyone is backed up on B’s.” With relatively warmer weather in early January, “we will have a good January for shipping.”
Red River Valley A-sized red potato prices have been steadily “decent” at $15.50 — or sometimes less — per hundredweight. Dolan expects that price will hold. “One or two small shippers are finished. That helps hold the market.”
Larsen Farms, which is based in Hamer, ID, has production in the Texas panhandle and is a renewed player in the red potato storage business. “There has been production in the panhandle before and they have started again,” he said. “That impacts the red deal.” He added that red potato production has also increased in Idaho, which has increased overall supplies.
Ted Kreis, marketing director for the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, indicated red potato movement “has been good. I’d say it’s been average to above average. There was a little lull after Christmas but we expect demand to pick up. Most experts expect prices to creep up. Supplies are not overly abundant,” thus the cause for optimism.
Kreis noted that weather conditions in the early fall forced a late Red River Valley harvest, which created a slow marketing start. “In November it picked up momentum. The quality is better than last year. There seems to be a growing preference in consumer demand for red potatoes. Ninety percent of what we grow (for the fresh market) is red potatoes.”
Yellow potato production is also gaining momentum in the Red River Valley, he said.