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MFX sees short Maine potato crop, only good quality to be shipped

Bob Davis, president of Maine Farmers Exchange in Presque Isle, ME, sees both good and bad quality in Maine’s potato fields this year. The company will be focusing on ensuring only the high-quality product ships.

“It seems that every farmer in Maine has some good potatoes this year, and every farmer has some bad,” Mr. Davis said. “Our primary goal is to ensure that they don’t ship any of the bad. We’ll deal with this issue daily. MFX has been working with farmers in Maine for many years, and we’ve seen major shakeouts, so we know that the potato growers who are still in business here are so because they are savvy and they understand the dynamics of marketing the right way.”

Maine Farmers Exchange handles Superior and other round white potato varieties. In russets, it deals primarily in the Norkotah variety, and the firm handles Yukon Gold and Keuka Gold as its yellow flesh varieties.

Mr. Davis explained that years ago, much of the country was dependent upon potatoes from Maine, but that has changed over the years. “Today we’re more the ‘tail of the dog,’ following other major producing states,” he said. “We have to deliver good quality or people will go elsewhere. Some less-than-perfect product can go the way of processing, but some varieties cannot because the gravity for them is too low. Not all varieties work well for every use. There are all kinds of limiting factors.”

When there are doubts about a recently harvested potato crop — Maine started harvesting in mid-September — Mr. Davis said the best thing to do is what growers in Maine are doing this year: Let the potatoes cool and then check them carefully to determine their condition.

“The most important thing is that they be very cautious,” he said. “If you start small, you have small problems. But if you start big, you end up with big problems. We’re starting small this year to ensure that what our customers get is top quality.”

Maine has mandatory inspections in place on every load to ensure only good-quality potatoes are shipped, and MFX’s own crew does additional checks on each load. Mr. Davis said that it will take a lot of footwork to try to make sure everyone’s needs are met this year — including the farmers, as they have a lot of money invested in their crops.

“We also have to make sure that the needs are met at the customer end, as they are our lifeblood,” Mr. Davis added. “It’s a long food chain, and we want to make sure every link is fine-tuned. There is no doubt but that our volumes will be down because we’ve already dumped some and we anticipate even more shrink. When in doubt, we throw it out. We cannot take a chance on anything. If it looks suspicious, it has to come out. With potatoes, you can’t see five days down the road, so you always err on the side of safety.”

All of MFX’s potato varieties will be down in volume this year, especially yellows, reds and whites because they got hurt the most by moisture. Russets, Mr. Davis said, seemed to come through a little better.

“I think there’s a shortage of processing potatoes for chips and fries as well this year,” he added. “Every growing state and province has had some type of problem: too dry, too wet, late plantings and other problems that have reduced yields. Some, however, are only minor shortages. Regardless, no one got out unscathed this year.”

A short potato market would at least lend strength to prices across the United States and Canada. Mr. Davis said that prices will not be outrageous, but some increases will help to put a foot under the market.

A few decades ago, Maine grew over 100,000 acres of potatoes. Today, it produces only 55,000 acres. But potato production has increased in other areas of the country, and if one state has a bad crop, other states can cover the void.

“But when seven or eight states have a problem, there’s not enough extra production beyond that to make up for it,” said Mr. Davis.