Ken Gad, a partner in Cambridge Farms in South Easton, ME, along with Steve Cohen, told The Produce News that potato tonnage in the western United States is more normal this year, but not huge.
“It’s a more normal crop in terms of tonnage,” he said. “It seems that most areas on the East Coast had some issues with rain. Some areas had enough rain during the growing period, but there were also some washouts. We’d like to be able to store more than we are this year, but the quality of what we have in storage is very good.”
Mr. Gad said that when people in one area make statements indicating they will not have potatoes, he believes that region is trying to position itself for what is to come that season. The reality in most cases is that there are plenty of good potatoes available in the country.
“There is no doubt but that the western market will steer the bus this year, and the rest of the country will be the passengers and do what they can,” Mr. Gad said. “Overall, everyone in the country will do business. The west is strong on russet potatoes, and the quality of red potatoes in North Dakota seems to be very good. Washington has its typical nice crop. Here in Maine and eastern Canada, the quality is also very good.”
He added that price levels have come down since the summer highs and are good enough to give growers a nice return and to allow retailers to market them aggressively at fair market prices that give them fair margins. Retailers, he said, did a tremendous job of marketing potatoes last year and at price levels that benefited everyone in the supply chain.
“Farmers deserve more money, but if they can get a fair return, they’ll keep growing,” he said.
Cambridge Farms markets many potato varieties through its grower-partner relationships in Maine, and the company works with them constantly to keep them on track with food-safety initiatives.
“We don’t deal with anyone who, at the very least, is not Good Agricultural Practices certified,” said Mr. Gad. “A couple of our growers are third-party audited, and a couple others are in the process of being third-party audited this year.”
He noted that one of the bigger problems for growers is that some retailers want one type of food-safety certification and others want different ones. “This is also happening in the foodservice sector,” he pointed out. “Every farmer would have to hire a full-time food-safety expert just to keep track of the demands, and that would create a huge financial burden on many. This is where the Produce Marketing Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the potato industry need to come together and get everyone on the same page.”
He also noted that there are approximately 8,400 five-pound bags of potatoes in a normal load, which comes to about 126,000 potatoes. “Of those, if 100 have been touched by a human hand, that would be a lot,” he said. “Everything is done by machine today. Once harvested, the potatoes are water bathed with an agent that kills bacteria. They then go down a line and are put into a bag by machine. It doesn’t get much safer than that.”
Consumers, Mr. Gad said, have retrained themselves during the economic recession. They have learned to reduce waste and make what they buy go farther. For the potato industry, that should be good news. “The cost of a bag of potatoes is still a good value,” he said. “They provide high nutrition, are dense and satisfying, and the price is within almost everyone’s budget.
“We’re looking forward to another good marketing season this year,” he continued. “We have good-quality potatoes, prices will be good and hopefully volumes will supply the demand. We’re looking forward to another win-win year.”