REXBURG, Idaho — Idaho grower-shippers are grateful to have enough water this season, and say the immediate future looks stable.
In mid-September, Rob Rydalch, supply coordinator for Wilcox Fresh, wondered if the haze he was seeing in fields above Rexburg was smoke drifting over from fires in California.
That speculation illustrated well the differences this year between drought-stricken California, where growers are facing limited production because of low water supplies, and the Idaho potato industry.
“We are really blessed with the aquifer we have,” Rydalch said. “Even in years where there’s virtually no snow, we’re able to make it through the season.”
With its northern desert climate, Idaho potato growers don’t have to worry about blight and other issues as much as growers in other parts of the country, said Robert Tominaga, president of Heyburn, Idaho-based Southwind Farms.
“It stays pretty dry here.”
So in some ways, eastern Idaho growers have the best of both worlds — wet when they need it, dry when they don’t.
“In Idaho we have a good supply of clean water,” Tominaga said.
While the heavy August rains in the state caused complications for some growers and delayed harvests, they did bring area reservoirs up, and they came at a time when growers weren’t irrigating, shoring up water supplies for future use, Tominaga said.
Long-term, Tominaga is optimistic about Idaho spud growers’ prospects for having enough water.
As for California, Southwind is gauging how the Golden State’s water woes will affect its production.
On one hand, Southwind may have to meet the extra demand generated by California growers in Kern County and other regions growing less.
On the other hand, consumers in California, one of Southwind’s big markets, could move if the water situation doesn’t improve — or, if they stay, they could spend more on water and less on specialty produce.
“We’re praying they get some rain and snow,” Tominaga said. “We like it stable.”
Some growers reported that the late-season rains dumped 10 inches or more of rain on Idaho fields, said Frank Muir, president and CEO of the Eagle-based Idaho Potato Commission.
That made it hard for growers to get into fields, and will likely affect sizing, but the upside was obvious, Muir said.
“It’s hard to complain when it’s filling the reservoirs.”
There were some reports of water-related concerns early in the season, but by September they had stopped, said Chris Wada, director of marketing and exports for Idaho Falls-based Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC.
“From what I’ve been told, it’s OK. It’s nothing that’s made us change any of our plans.”
It’s not only a stable water supply that has boosted yields to as much as 550 sacks per acre in recent years, Rydalch said.
“Farmers have gotten smarter, and chemical companies have gotten better. Farmers are very proactive. They get smarter year after year after year.”
Technology has made it easier for them, Rydalch said. “GPS is phenomenal.”