Weather issues during the 2019 growing and harvest season had potato prices soaring during the pre-holiday period, with little change expected after the first of the year, marketers said.
A hard freeze swept into Idaho in October and affected some of the crop, although most spuds across the state had come out of the ground by then, said Ross Johnson, international marketing director with the Eagle-based Idaho Potato Commission.
“There has been quite a bit of talk concerning the Idaho crop this year; the fact is that 85% of the state’s potatoes were harvested before the freeze came,” he said.
Not only that, he said, the commission received reports that the potatoes harvested before the freeze were “very high-quality spuds.”
Nevertheless, the Idaho industry recognized “that the freeze created an unprecedented disruption to our normal supply to gear up for the holiday season,” Johnson said.
He also noted that the industry was responding.
“Our shippers are working around the clock to keep their customers in business and communication will continue to ensure we keep supplying the market with the No. 1-requested Idaho potato,” he said.
In addition, rain caused some delays in the Midwest, and there could be some issues ahead, according to marketers.
“Overall, Wisconsin farms put into storage an average crop with below average size due to the many weather-related conditions during the growing season,” said Rachel Atkinson-Leach, category and brand manager with the Bancroft, Wis.-based grower-shipper Russet Potato Exchange (RPE) Inc.
She said Wisconsin likely is down 10% to 15%, compared to previous averages.
“Other larger growing regions, such as Idaho, are also posting declines in total supplies, due to early snow and frost conditions during harvest,” Atkinson-Leach said.
Average yields across the country could be down nearly 10% to 15%, she said.
“The good thing is we were able to get it all out of the ground before it froze,” Atkinson-Leach said. “Overall, the crop is storing well.”
Spud inventories could dwindle a bit after the holidays, said Michael Hart, sales and marketing director at Fryeburg, Maine-based Green Thumb Farms.
“With the weather-related issues in the middle of the country and in Idaho, I expect supply to tighten up after the first of the year,” he said.
“Reds and russets will be the first and then yellows and whites will follow, if at all.”
That likely will lead to stronger markets, said Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Monte Vista-based Colorado Potato Administrative Committee.
“The outlook is strong for fresh potatoes with prices higher than last year at this time, especially for potatoes with good size for cartons,” Ehrlich said. “The national supply will be tight this year, so I expect prices to strengthen as the marketing year advances.”
Even a month before Christmas, prices were up, said Christine Lindner, national sales and marketing manager with Friesland, Wis.-based Alsum Farms & Produce.
“The holiday is putting pressure on the market for promotional volumes, yet prices are well above last year’s market,” she said. “Prices for potatoes in mid-November are trending well above year-ago levels.”
As of Dec. 2, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 50-pound cartons of russet norkotahs from Central Wisconsin were priced at $18-19 for size 40-70s; $16-17, 80s; $13-15, 90s; and $12-14, 100s. A year earlier, the same product was $12-13 for size 40-70s; $11-13, 80s; and $10-10.50, 90-100s.
Overall, 2019 has been “a challenging year,” said Scott Leimkuhler, vice president of Progressive Produce LLC in Walla Walla, Wash.
“The russet potato crop ran into some cold weather sooner than expected,” he said. “The colored potatoes got hit hard by rain, which prevented many growers from finishing their harvest.”