The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has not slowed Wisconsin’s potato industry, said Dana Rady, director of promotion, communication and consumer education with the Antigo-based Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association.
“Wisconsin growers have been very fortunate as they have been able to continue producing food for families even with the challenges of the pandemic,” Rady said.
“COVID itself has not significantly impacted the number of acres planted in the state.”
What the pandemic has done to the potato market is another story, however, Rady acknowledged.
“When the foodservice sector was shut down due to COVID-19 concerns, the processors and their contracted growers had a surplus of 2019 crop potatoes in storage,” Rady said.
In Wisconsin, most of those potatoes entered fresh market channels, Rady said.
“In addition, they cut volume on upcoming contracts by as much as 25%,” Rady said.
When restaurants began to reopen, processors found themselves needing the additional volume, Rady said.
“In some cases, they were able to get this by reinstating original volumes on grower contracts,” she said.
“As all of this was occurring, some growers cut back on their planted acres, while others continued with their normal planted acres, hoping that process or fresh markets would be available in the fall.”
With restaurants shut down from March to May, business shifted dramatically to the retail channels, Rady said.
“Foodservice sales have come back strong in the last two months, and retail sales remain strong,” Rady said.
Friesland, Wis.-based Alsum Farms continued its acreage expansion, regardless of the pandemic, said Christine Lindner, marketing manager.
“This year, Alsum Farms planted more than 2,700 acres of potatoes between our two farming locations in Arena and Grand Marsh, Wis., Lindner said.
That was 175 more than a year ago, she said.
“At the onset of the public health crisis Wisconsin potatoes had experienced an incredible surge in demand at retail by consumers seeking nutritional foods,” Lindner said.
Most Alsum spuds go to retail customers, Lindner said.
“In this time, we have seen consumers adapting by consolidating to one trip per week to their local grocery store to pick up a bag or two of 5- and 10-pound potatoes to have this nutritional staple readily available in their pantry,” Lindner said.
The company was fortunate to have a versatile product with the capability of a long shelf life, Lindner said.
“The storability and versatility of fresh potatoes lends itself as a go-to staple for home cooks to bring together delicious and nutritious meals for their family,” she said.
“With COVID-19 and the large majority of potatoes moving through the retail channel at grocery stores, most consumers prefer 5- and 10-pound bags versus hand-picking bulk potatoes. Also, consumers prefer that others are not touching their food within the produce aisle.”
Rosholt, Wis.-based grower-shipper Bushmans’ Inc. also got a positive jolt from the tilt toward retail traffic during the pandemic, said Mike Carter, business development director.
“We have seen tremendous velocity on the retail side and seen the foodservice slow down almost to nothing in March and April,” he said. “It’s been slowly creeping back, but that’s been the effect.”
Those trends seemed likely to continue, Carter predicted.
“Retail will remain strong,” he said. “I’d also anticipate that the foodservice will lag behind and continue to be a little more difficult. But it’s hard to say; it depends on what happens with COVID. If there’s another shutdown, it would exacerbate the situation.”
The pandemic has affected labor, said Dick Okray, president of Plover, Wis.-based Okray Family Farms Inc.
“Certainly, it has diminished our capacity to find good, experienced workers, but that’s pretty much the only downside of that,” he said. “We are classified as essential work, so we’re working every day.”
There are opportunities to successfully endure the crisis, Okray said.
“We have to keep our heads,” he said. “We’re experiencing pretty good markets. There’s gonna be ample opportunity to set some great promotions all the way through.”
Retail promotions will help, Okray said.
“We’re pretty much only in the retail channel, and it’s locally grown produce, the good stuff, where we want to be,” he said.
“I think everybody agrees this is where we’re supposed to be.”
Foodservice customers also can endure, Okray said.
“A lot of QSRs (quick-service restaurants) are doing very close to the same business they were doing before they shut the walk-in part of their business,” he said.
“When people walked in, they were ordering dinner for themselves; now, at the drive-thru, they’re ordering dinner for the whole family. So, that line probably represents the same volume of fries as before.”
Business has been brisk at Endeavor, Wis.-based Gumz Farms, said Tom Bulgrin, potato salesman.
“So far, we have been busier than this time last year, and we expect this to continue into fall,” he said.
“Our employees have been nervous, but with extra precautions and social distancing, we have been able to keep a steady, safe and healthy workforce with no interruptions.”