After two years of below-average yields, Wisconsin potato growers predict a crop above the state’s five-year average of 26.4 million cwt, said Randy Shell, vice president of marketing and new business development for Bancroft, Wis.-based RPE Inc.

“It looks to be a great year to promote Wisconsin potatoes,” Shell said. “Due to the early spring, we will be harvesting about two weeks earlier than normal. The crop looks fantastic.”

Harvest to begin mid-July

Shell said harvest was expected to start July 11 with red potatoes, followed by whites, yellows and russets. Specialty and fingerling potatoes also were expected to be harvested in mid-July.

“We anticipate all varieties will begin to be harvested between July 11 and July 23,” he said. “Consumer demand for red and yellow potatoes continues to increase, and the trend will continue into the future as growers introduce new varieties to the marketplace. We should have a great crop to promote this season. The potato quality is excellent.”

Mike Carter, chief executive officer of Bushmans’ Inc., Roshold, Wis., said his company expected to start about 10 days earlier than usual in late July. He said Bushmans’ expects to wrap up shipping from the 2011 storage crop by June 16, so no overlap is expected with the new crop.

Tom Lundgren, owner of Stevens Point-based Spud City Sales, said dry conditions have not hampered the crop.

“Growing conditions have been excellent,” he said. “We have been a little short of rain, but most growers have their crop under pivot irrigation. If anything, growers are able to better control the water needed to grow a crop when it’s a drier year, like this year.”

Concern about pricing, demand

Lundgren was more concerned about what the crop’s early arrival would do to pricing and demand. The Perishables Group reported average potato prices were down nearly 11% for the 52-week period that ended April 28.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean good news for the potato market, especially russets,” he said. “Whenever there are major growing regions starting at the same time or old crop runs into new crop, the markets adjust downward. Throw in the fact that fresh demand is down in general, and it makes for an ugly picture.

“We’ve already seen a decline in the price of russets out west, as growers out there are trying to get rid of the last of their 2011 crop before the new crop is harvested. From what we have heard, Wisconsin is not the only region that will be early, which certainly doesn’t bode well for pricing either.”

Lundgren said if red deals in the East are done by the time Wisconsin starts in mid-July, prices should be strong until Minnesota begins shipping its new crop. However, he said Wisconsin’s russet deal likely will have to compete with Kansas, Washington, Colorado and Nebraska.

“And new crop Idaho norkotahs won’t be far behind,” he said.

Russets make up a significant portion of the crop for many Wisconsin growers.

President Dick Okray said reds and yellows account for 15% of volume for Plover, Wis.-based Okray Family Farms Inc., which doesn’t grow whites. The rest of its crop is russets.

The USDA reported July 3 that U.S. One russet norkotah baled five 10-pound film bags non-size A Wisconsin potatoes were mostly $8-8.50, and 50-pound cartons of 40- 70s were $11.

Varieties on the rise

“Varieties are steadily increasing,” said Rick Kantner, director of sales and marketing for Friesland-based Alsum Farms & Produce Inc. “Reds are No. 2, but russets are still the dominant potato.”

Kantner said Alsum is trying to educate consumers about varieties and how to use them, including offering recipes on the company’s website, Facebook page and packaging.

Lundgren said Spud City has seen steady or slightly increasing demand for colored varieties.

“A lot depends on the quality of the crop when it comes to colored potatoes,” he said. “We see an increase in volume if the quality is high.”

Okray said Wisconsin growers have benefitted from increasing retail demand for locally grown product.

“This concept resonates with young and old alike, and I predict it will only gain traction in both the retail and restaurant channels,” he said.

Lundgren said that benefit hasn’t been limited by state lines.

“We are closer to the major eastern U.S. markets than most other growing regions, so that means fewer food miles for Wisconsin potatoes, which generally translates to a lower price — most years — for our customers,” he said.