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.

That's 140,000 potato acres and 42 million to 45 million cwt. of potatoes, Beesley said. And some of the biggest names in Idaho potatoes are taking an active role in the cooperative.

Albert Wada, president of Wada Farms Potatoes Inc., is acting chairman while the board searches for a chief executive officer. Blair Larson of Larson Farms is another board member. Wada Farms and Larson Farms are the two largest potato producers in the state.

Among other participating companies are:

  • Sugar City-based Sun-Glo of Idaho.
  • Rupert-based Nature’s Best Produce.
  • Paul-based Sun Valley Potatoes Inc.
  • Blackfoot-based Idaho Fresh Cooperative, which represents 70 growers and 28,000 acres by itself.

Howard Taylor & Sons, Rigby-based Rigby Produce and Rexburg-based High Country Potato and Floyd Wilcox & Sons Inc. also are on board.

If United Fresh Potato Growers of Idaho is successful, the model could be adopted in other states or even on a nationwide basis under one umbrella, Beesley said.

Potato growers from Wisconsin, Colorado, Nebraska, Washington, Oregon and California all have voiced support for the effort.

Indeed, in a National Potato Council meeting Dec. 9 in Colorado Springs, Colo., United Fresh Potato Growers will be a major topic of discussion, Beesley said.

United Fresh Potato Growers already has drawn at least moral support from the U.S. Potato Board and the Idaho Potato Commission.

The Idaho Potato Commission doesn’t have pricing authority and cannot help with that function of United Fresh Potato Growers, said commission president Muir. But the commission will support the cooperative in any way it can.



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