( Courtesy Green Thumb Farms )

Rough weather during the U.S. potato harvest last fall continues to shake up the markets well into 2020, marketers say.

“Overall, the market is elevated due to several weather-related issues across the country during fall harvest,” said Rachel Atkinson-Leach, category and brand manager for Russet Potato Exchange Inc., Bancroft, Wis.

Recent prices seemed to support that contention, with year-on-year prices having jumped higher across the category.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as of Feb. 11, 50-pound cartons of russet norkotahs out of Central Wisconsin were $20-21 for sizes 40-70; $17-18, 80; $13-15, 90; and $12-14, 100.

A year ago, the same product was $14-16 for sizes 40-70; $12.50-13.50, 80; $11.50-12, 90; and $11.50-12, 100.

That market bump could reach into the spring, Atkinson-Leach said.

“We believe the market has plateaued until the next quality event, which should happen in late May and depends on how well Idaho’s storage crop packs out,” she said. 

In general, she said, grower-shippers are maintaining inventories “at a nice pace,” with the exception of Idaho, which was “pulling more” in early February than it was a year earlier at the same time. 

“Early indicators are, Idaho might be in trouble with their early frost they experienced in the fall; otherwise, pricing will remain strong on 10-ounce and above, due to the short crop and smaller sizing,” Atkinson-Leach said.

Strong markets likely will last a while, said Eric Beck, marketing director at Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC.

“The remaining stocks on hand for the storage crop continue to be the main driver of the market,” he said. 

“With the combination of size and quality being the primary variables for production costs, we speculate stronger pricing when compared to the five-year historical averages to meet the U.S. potato demand. Larger profile russet potatoes will be the wild card and they will trend prices in an upward fashion through the remainder of the 2019 russet storage crop.”

Suppliers will have to be judicious in handling their inventories, after a busy Thanksgiving-Christmas season, Beck said.

“Storage utilization will need to be conservative to maintain availability until the 2020 crop,” he said. 

“It will be a balancing act to mitigate quality and holding potatoes into the spring/summer months of 2020.”

With Idaho not having the same historical velocity as previous seasons due to reduced supplies, some of the demand pressure was reallocated to other parts of the country, Beck said.

Colorado saw heavy movement during the holidays and into the new year, he said.

“Supplies versus production output will need to be carefully managed to prevent any gaps between the 2019 and 2020 crops,” he said. “Like the rest of the country, larger profile potatoes will be harder to come by and in high demand.”

Ross Johnson, international marketing director with the Eagle-based Idaho Potato Commission, said the potato industry is “in for a fun year.”

“There are absolutely zero indications that supplies are going to be on the plentiful side this year,” he said. 

“Shippers are focusing more than ever on ensuring quality potatoes are leaving their sheds. This has caused lines to run slower than normal. We also are watching the frozen market as processors could be looking to purchase potatoes intended for the fresh market to help meet demand.”  

Supplies of red potatoes are another potential concern, said Michael Hart, director of sales and marketing at Fryeburg, Maine-based grower-shipper Green Thumb Farms.

“With the devastating weather in North Dakota and Minnesota last September, a good percentage of the red crop was left in the ground,” he said.

That means red potato supplies are going to get increasingly tight.

“They’re projecting to be done with their red supply months ahead of time,” Hart said.

Supply issues aren’t limited to the reds, however, Hart noted.

“There’s also a weather-related shortage affecting the larger size russet potatoes in the Western states, Idaho and Washington; that market has been higher all year long, and I expect that trend to continue,” he said.

As an example, one Western supplier of Green Thumb is predicting that it will be out of product in March, compared to a usual finish in June, Hart said.

South Florida has started to harvest reds, Hart said.

“But, as storage reds clean up, I expect things to heat up around mid-March, as harvesting in the state continues north,” he said.

In Maine, round white volumes are “pretty normal,” and there are enough yellow potatoes to meet the needs for St. Patrick’s Day and Easter, Hart said.

“At Green Thumb Farms, we have state-of-the-art storages so we’re able to keep stock on hand for our mainstream customers,” he said. 

“We can see there’s going to be a shortage on big potatoes, so we’re taking our large profile and plan to get our product to the marketplace when supplies get tight.”

Green Thumb continually sizes through its crop, Hart said.

“Smalls are coming out in May with our Picnic Perfect product, so we expect we’ll be shipping our own product clear until July,” he said. “You do need the right storage conditions in order to do that.”

Hart indicated that weather woes also could touch next year’s crop.

“One thing I’ve been thinking about is whether seed potatoes will be affected, too,” he said. 

“We have a tendency to look at the table stock-size supply, but there are a lot of regions that had bad weather and reduced harvests that produce seed potatoes. I wonder if next year’s crops will also be hurt and if the red situation snowballs into one more year until supplies are back up to capacity.”

Houston-based MountainKing Potatoes’ supply outlook is “very positive,” although it does have some challenges, said John Pope, vice president of sales and marketing.

“As with many growers, our supplies of reds and larger-size russets are in less supply due to challenging weather conditions during the growing season,” he said. 

“Supplies for two of our varieties — our reds and large russets — are in less supply,” he said.

Baker-size russets were trading at record highs for early February and likely will “hold strong” for the remainder of the storage season, said Christine Lindner, national sales with Friesland, Wis.-based Alsum Farms & Produce Inc.

“Our Wisconsin storage crop russet potato stocks on hand are a manageable supply, with the majority being a medium-size profile,” she said. 

“The quality of our russets in storage this year will yield a higher percentage of No. 1s.” 

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