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Idaho spud prices disappoint

Dave Wilkins, Capital Press Staff Writer 1/13/06

LAS VEGAS – Idaho potato growers aren’t getting enough for their 2005 crop spuds, especially considering the crop was short, leaders said last week at an industry meeting.

Idaho farmers produced 15 million hundredweight fewer potatoes in 2005 than they did the year before. That helped boost prices last fall to some of their best levels in years.

But prices for Idaho russets have deteriorated since, with recent grower returns as much as $2 per hundredweight below some other states.

The difference in prices was a topic of discussion last week at a United Potato Growers of America board meeting in Las Vegas.

United Chairman Albert Wada of Idaho said growers in his home state should not be satisfied with the $5.50 to $6 per hundredweight that they’ve been receiving.

“It’s totally senseless,” Wada said in an interview after the meeting which was held in conjunction with the National Potato Council’s annual gathering. “Growers should be in charge of this. They should be able to say, ‘No, I won’t take $5.50 for my potatoes.’”

Returns in Washington state have been close to those in Idaho, but prices in other major potato-producing states have been much better.

Grower returns in Colorado have risen to more than $8 per hundredweight for spuds run through fresh-pack sheds. Wisconsin growers have been getting $8 to $8.75 field-run prices for Norkotah shipments, and in the Klamath Basin, growers have been receiving about $7 for Russet Burbanks and $8 for Russet Norkotahs.

“We’re $2 below practically every other russet shipping state in the nation, with the exception of Washington,” Wada said of the Idaho market.

Part of the difference can be attributed to the greater shipping distance from Idaho to major markets.

“We have a freight disadvantage without a doubt, but our discount to the market is much more than what the freight difference is,” Wada said.

Idaho growers are getting more for their spuds now than they did last year, but they should be getting more based on the lower supply, he said.

“Obviously (growers) are thinking $6 is good enough, but quite frankly, they’re leaving $2 on the table,” Wada said.

United leaders have been urging members to slow down 2005 shipments in accordance with a national supply management plan, but it appears many Idaho members aren’t following it.

“At our current shipping pace, we’re going to run out of potatoes before the end of the season,” Wada said.

“Even though a good many of these packing sheds and sales entities are United members, they’re still fighting it out daily ... to keep market share,” he said.

If things don’t change, there could be a big spike in potato prices toward the end of the shipping season this summer and perhaps a shortage of spuds.

If that happens, it won’t be good for major buyers, consumers or the potato industry, Wada said.

Relatively few growers holding late season storage spuds will benefit from a big price spike, and shortages could alienate customers.

“If we get the price too high and start running out of product, customers and consumers will be forced to shift to other produce categories, and then we will have to win them back,” Wada said.

U.S. Department of Agriculture stocks figures, as well as private data collected from United members, do not support the rapid pace of Idaho potato shipments this year, industry officials said.

“Either Idaho growers don’t believe the stocks numbers, as reported by USDA, or Idaho shippers are more concerned about competing with their neighbor in Idaho for market share than getting a fair return for all Idaho growers,” said Keith Esplin, executive director of Potato Growers of Idaho.

Dave Wilkins is based in Twin Falls, Idaho. His email address is dwilkins@capitalpress.com.



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