Potato growers in Kern County, Calif., are optimistic about the 2013 harvest, though it may be delayed as much as two weeks from normal for some of them because of unusually cool weather in recent weeks.
The growers are thankful the county did not have the extreme cold that hit nearby desert areas, where yields for thin-skinned and specialty varieties are down. Russet volumes are also down, but that’s because growers planted fewer this season.
“No one anticipated good yields from the desert this year,” said Brett Dixon, president of Top Brass Marketing, Shafter, Calif. “So I don’t think we will have the oversupply that we did last year.”
Dixon said the harvest schedule is progressing through California as anticipated, with crews working the El Centro area the last 10 days of April. He said he expects his Kern County harvest to begin about May 6.
The fields where Kundert Bros. Farms Inc., Edison, Calif., grows all colors of fingerlings are running a bit earlier, said office manager Nicole Vergano. She said company president Mike Kundert said he expects to begin harvesting at the end of April.
The microclimates in California’s growing regions can change in a few days time, said Pete Belluomini, vice president of farming for Lehr Bros. Inc., Edison. The company was already harvesting specialty potatoes April 22.
“We’re actually in much better shape than we thought about two weeks ago,” Belluomini said.
“The quality looks good and we were able to make up some time in the past two weeks to offset cooler temperatures earlier. But we are still having cool mornings for this late in spring.”
Belluomini echoed Dixon’s comments about the low volumes coming out of the Imperial Valley. He described the frosts in the valley earlier this year as devastating. Belluomini said frost in Florida’s potato regions is further decreasing overall volumes.
The low volumes in other regions mean prices should be stable and strong for Kern County potatoes, Belluomini said.
Dixon and Vergano also said they expect stable and strong prices for the nonrusset varieties coming out of Kern County this season.
Russets losing ground
Increasing plantings of russets in other regions of the country have created an overall surplus, raising concerns about pricing and encouraging Kern County growers to whittle their plantings of the big, thick-skinned potatoes.
Russets plantings are down in Kern County from 65% to 75%, depending on who you ask. Joe Nunez, farm adviser for the University of California-Davis Kern County Extension Office, confirmed the decrease is because the russet market is so bad.
“Very few russet potatoes were planted, but the reds, whites and yellows are at normal levels,” Nunez said.
Belluomini described the russet plantings in Kern County as “almost nil” this season. He said the county probably only has about 25% of the russets compared to a normal year.
“It’s because of the amount in storage,” Belluomini said.
“We’ve been relegated pretty much to the specialty varieties in this region. We are being asked more and more for the smaller sizes — they used to be a byproduct, and now we are selling them and looking for varieties that grow smaller potatoes because demand is so high.”
Other growers confirmed the trend in Kern County is toward smaller and specialty potatoes.
Top Brass Marketing, for example, is back in the fingerling deal this season after sitting out for a year. Company president Dixon said Top Brass did fingerlings for about six years but they didn’t feel they had the correct varieties. Research during the 2012 season led them to a couple of different varieties that Dixon said are expected to sell well this season.
Top Brass hasn’t planted conventional russets for more than a decade, said Dixon. The company does have organic russets in Kern County, but Dixon said he had heard the conventional russet plantings for 2013 are down about 65%.
Kundert Bros. specializes in fingerlings only, focusing on the big profits that the small potatoes provide, said Vergano.
“The banana fingerlings are still the most popular,” she said. “The other colors switch around as far as demand goes, but they all sell well.”