(July 24, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) Potato prices have been at or near record highs this summer, and grower-shippers are saying buyers should not expect any softening in the near future.

“I’ve been in this business for about 20 years, and these are the highest prices I’ve ever seen,” said Clay Gustaveson, director of sales for Potandon Produce LLC, Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Several factors have contributed to the surge in prices, including acreage being shifted to more lucrative crops.

“Corn, barley, alfalfa — all have become very viable options to replace potato acreage for less cost per acre and yet a very good return for the production,” said Kevin Searle, general manager of GPOD of Idaho, Shelley, Idaho.

As a result, there are fewer acres of potatoes in potato growing states. The drop in acreage is in part by design.

“The U.S. finally decided — after losing money eight of 10 years — it was tired of that cycle,” said Tom Lundgren, president and owner of Spud City Sales LLC, Stevens Point, Wis. “The whole U.S. took a united effort, communicated with one another and started growing fewer acres of potatoes.”

Wisconsin growers established a state chapter under the umbrella of the United Potato Growers of America, a group that shares production, movement, quality and other factors that affect potato markets.

Lundgren said he expected the quality and volume of the Wisconsin potato crop would be average to above average for the balance of summer and the fall. The reason for the good crop has been ideal weather conditions since about July 1, he said, after a delayed start due to a cold, wet spring.

“We’ll have supplies for our customers longer than last season,” Lundgren said.

The late start was shared by grower-shippers in Idaho.

“The spring weather put us 10 days to two weeks behind,” Searle said. “Since that time, we’ve had ideal conditions for growing an Idaho potato crop.”

All of Idaho will be done with the 2007 crop by mid-August, Searle said. That is about the time harvesting will begin on the 2008 early varieties. The state’s dominant variety, russet burbank, will not be available until late September, he said.

There could be the possibility of a small supply gap in Idaho, Gustaveson said. Two other western states, Washington and California, are nearing the end of their seasons.

“Washington State should be done completely by the end of the month,” said John Corbridge, operations manager for Driscoll Potatoes Inc., American Falls, Idaho.

The Kern County, California, potato crop is about done with russet norkotahs, said a spokesman for Mazzei-Franconi Co. LLC, Edison, Calif. The company will market reds, whites and yukons from the Lancaster area until early September, he said.

The 2008 Idaho crop looks as if it will be good quality, Corbridge said. But he had a warning.

“I think the supply may be a little bit short,” Corbridge said.

If so, prices will likely remain high.

Prices for 50 pound cartons of 2007 Idaho russet burbanks, 40s, were $11.50, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported July 23. Prices for 50-70s were $9 with 80s going for $8.

Prices were about the same for Colorado russet norkotahs but were down to $7.45 per carton for California russet norkotahs.

F.o.b.s for 50-pound cartons of Wisconsin russet norkotahs, 40-70s, were $10.50-11, with 80s at $9-10 and 90s fetching $8-9.

While prices may be high, most Idaho grower-shippers said quality should be up, too. Russet burbanks are about egg-size now, Searle said, but it looks like quality could be up dramatically over a year ago.