Late start, fewer acres stoke new crop spud prices

07/07/2011 09:34:00 AM
Dan Gailbraith

A cool, wet spring likely will delay the first shipments of Washington and Oregon potatoes, but once the deal gets going the product will enter a strong market, growers and shippers say.

That’s because supplies have been short, which is due in part to a cut in acreage in Washington, said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Moses Lake-based Washington State Potato Commission.

“We had a big reduction in acres, down to 135,000, (a level at) which we hadn’t been since probably the early 1990s,” he said. “We had been at 155,000 to 165,000.”

Oregon growers planted about 38,300 acres a year ago, according to the Oregon State University Extension Service.

The reduction had come about as a result of lower demand a couple of years ago, Voigt said.

“It was mostly due to the depressed demand, but I think that estimates were off on what the demand would be for this year because pretty much everybody is rationing potatoes,” he said. “The processors are scrambling to find potatoes and saying don’t go out promoting french fries right now because we have pretty tight supplies.”

About 10% of Washington’s potatoes go to the fresh market, Voigt said.

“Most of our shippers are just focusing on their core customers to meet their needs,” he said. “They’ve kind of rationed their supplies and not looking to expand.”

But a spate of normal conditions in June led some of them to speculate that the delay should be relatively minimal.

“The year in general has actually been quite good,” said Mike Connors, sales director for Pasco, Wash.-based Basin Gold Cooperative Inc. “The 2010-11 crop was good. The market was good. Now we’re behind, with the cool weather here, but lately it has gotten much better. Temperatures have been in the 70s and 80s, with cool nights, which is ideal. If we can keep this going, we may catch up a little bit.”

The fresh potato market has been solid through much of the year, thanks to lower supplies, Connors said.

“Prices have been good. We had a good, solid market this year,” he said. “Everyone should be awfully pleased with the way the market has gone. However it shook out, there were fewer potatoes last year. It’s pretty simple supply and demand.”

As of June 27, 50-pound cartons of U.S. 1 norkotahs from Washington were $20-23 for 50s, 60s and 70s; $17-20 for 80s; $15-18 for 90s; and $15-16 for 100s and 120s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A year earlier, they were $13-15 for 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s; $10-12 for 80s; $9-10 for 90s and 100s; and $8-10 for 120s.

Fifty-pound cartons of U.S. 1 round reds from Washington were $18-20 in sizes A and B. A year ago, 50-pound cartons of round reds from Washington were $12-16 in size A and $18-22 in size B.

Round whites in 50-pound cartons of round whites from Washington in size A were $28-30. Size Bs were $16-18. A year earlier, the same product in size A from Kern County, Calif., was $16-20 and $14-18 in size B.

Some shippers had finished their storage crop by the end of June.

“We got finished about three weeks ago,” said Chris Ratliff, salesman for Wong Potatoes Inc., Klamath Falls, Ore. “Last year turned out real good. The price, of course, was real good. Quality was about normal.”

The new crop is shaping up well, Ratliff added.

“Everything seems to be going good this year,” he said. “We had a cold spring this year, too, but it really hasn’t bothered anything. Last year, it rained a lot, but this year, everything’s looking real good.”

Larry Sieg, Pasco, Wash.-based sales manager of Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Potandon Produce LLC, voiced optimism about the upcoming crop.

“I think the crop is progressing very, very well,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to be maybe a week behind, at the most. The last month or so, it’s been about ideal temperatures. Just about what the doctor ordered.”

Short supplies have led to “a hot market,” Sieg added.



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