Just a number. A big number, no doubt, but still just one more than 999,999, a mere six-digiter.
But when I learned that U.S. planted potato acreage topped a million this season, it did take me aback. And not just because of the aura surrounding the word “million.”
The fact that spud acreage topped a million meant that it’s 46,000 acres more than last year — and, more importantly, that it’s as high as it’s been in five years.
If I correctly understand the mission of the Salt Lake City-based United Potato Growers of America, this wasn’t supposed to happen, right?
United Potato’s whole raison d’etre is to convince growers to pull back on acreage, with the aim of strengthening long-sluggish fresh potato markets.
For several years, it worked. But over much of the past year, russet markets have been stuck again in single digits.
I don’t pretend to understand the mind of a grower. But if I was staring at $7 or $8 carton prices I think I would consider cutting back a bit.
Clearly, that didn’t happen. Acreage this year is up not just in industry leader Idaho but in all of the nine top-producing spud states.
Growers and industry leaders are worried. But Jerry Wright, chief executive officer of the United Potato Growers of America, is trying to look on the bright side.
“Our co-op recommended that growers very carefully consider what they planted,” Wright said.
When I asked Wright if he was disappointed with the response to that recommendation, he said no.
“Many growers did heed warnings.”
Wright raised two points that could support a case for cautious optimism heading into the 2012-13 season. The first concerns yields.
“It’s very difficult to predict what kind of yields growers will have,” he said. “There’s been a lot of heat in some areas, and hail and other weather events in others.”
Based on conversations I had with state-level potato industry leaders, the heat, drought, hail, etc. could have some effect, but more along the lines of turning what first looked to be excellent yields into merely good ones. Good yields on a million-plus acres will have marketers sweating all season.
Nonetheless, as Wright and those other leaders stressed, there are still several weeks to harvest in most areas. Who knows what else Mother Nature may have up her sleeve.
The second possible saving grace Wright mentioned is the fresh/processed split. The industry seems united in the belief that processing will take up the lion’s share of the extra acreage this year.
But Wright and others are equally resigned to the fact that fresh acreage will at least increase by some. And if processors face a glut, some of those spuds could wind up back on the fresh market.
Much is still up in the air. The season hasn’t even started. Maybe yields will fall, maybe french fry and potato chip sales will go through the roof, maybe fresh marketers will rise to the occasion and set all kinds of sales records.
But if a year from now russet markets look like they do today, United Potato and its state chapters may have to look for a stick to go with the carrot in their “less (acreage) is more” pitch to growers.