Idaho potato growers seek price stability

11/11/2004 12:00:00 AM
Todd Foltz

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — After several straight years of potato overproduction and prices too low to make money, growers like David Beesley were heartened in July.

That’s when forecasts indicated that the potato crop would be down in Idaho and nationwide. And with Idaho enjoying a cool summer with timely rains, the russet burbanks and norkotahs came off in August and September with excellent quality and shape, many said.

So growers were less than thrilled when September fresh market prices were at or below the less-than-break-even prices of a year earlier.

And growers talked. Grower-shipper communication is something that the Boise-based Idaho Potato Commission has stressed in the 15 months since Frank Muir took over as president.

All across the state, they were talking about how to buttress prices that have helped push out more than half the state’s potato farms in the last decade.

A significant majority found common ground in a new cooperative that will seek to bolster Idaho potato prices through production controls and price directives but not — at least initially — through a centralized sales office.

Potato growers from across the country are now watching the fledgling United Fresh Potato Growers of Idaho, which issued its first price directive Nov. 3 and its second a week later.

United Fresh Potato Growers’ first price directive was $3.25 for a bale of five 10-pound poly bags. The Nov. 10 directive is $3.50.

“This has the potential to make sweeping changes,” said Beesley, who grows about 400 acres of potatoes with his brothers in the Upper Snake River Valley near Rexburg under the name Beesley Farms. He also runs a fresh packing shed called Snake River Plains Potatoes that handles potatoes for about 10 growers.

The concept of United Fresh Potato Growers of Idaho is to boost prices.

Members have agreed to sell for nothing below a weekly price set by an economist — Joe Gunther from the University of Idaho — and two statisticians that it has hired.

The cooperative is based in Idaho Falls and should have offices soon, Beesley said. A search is under way for a chief executive officer with experience in marketing and merchandising.

UNLIKE BEFORE

Growers have tried to bolster fresh market potato prices before. Beesley, who is on the board of United Fresh Potato Growers, has been involved in a few, but they failed because they were too aggressive or didn’t have enough grower support, he said.

That doesn’t appear to be the case this time.

The cooperative’s 400 founding members control 60% to 65% of the state’s fresh potato crop.


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