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Growers say they're cutting back potato crop

This story was published Tuesday, June 14th, 2005

By Anna King, Herald staff writer

Mid-Columbia fresh potato growers are growing fewer spuds to make more money.

The Washington & Oregon United Potato Growers Cooperative announced Monday that its members had cut back this year's crop by about 6,000 acres in the two states. That's the fewest acres grown since 1959, said Dave Long, the cooperative's Othello-based CEO.

"We are trying to get a balance where we aren't overproducing one year and underproducing the next," Long said.

Fresh potato growers have been hurting from overproduction and slacking demand for at least the past four years, he said.

Experts say low-carb health trends, the decline of super-sized portions and stiff competition from other countries are partly to blame.

"We've had people selling their potatoes for $20 a ton, which is $40 less than they need to break even," Long said.

The Northwest cooperative was formed about nine months ago and is similar to others in the United States and Canada. The goal: Organize growers, reduce acres and demand better prices.

Idaho farmers say they are growing 26,000 fewer acres of potatoes than they did in 2004.

The reduction includes cuts made voluntarily by growers, reduced acres of seed potatoes and some acres bought out from farmers by the cooperative.

This year, about 83 acres were bought out in Washington state by the cooperative, which paid those farmers money raised through a voluntary crop assessment to keep the lands out of production.

Idaho, Washington and Oregon growers also are working together to coordinate sales during August to keep a steady supply and not overload the market.

The cooperation between growers, states and countries is considered unprecedented in a industry known for its highly competitive and secretive nature.

"This is really unheard of," Long said.

He said he expects growers to earn more than $100 a ton for their spuds this year.

Dale Lathim, executive director of the Potato Growers of Washington, said Columbia Basin growers who raise processing potatoes also will benefit from the new partnership.

"It's taken the prices getting to this low level before everyone was willing to step back and grow less," he said.

The reduction in fresh potato acreage won't mean fewer potatoes in Washington, Lathim said. This year there was a bump in contracts for processing potatoes, he said.

Potato processors paid farmers to grow a few thousand more acres of spuds in the Columbia Basin this year because fast-food restaurants like McDonald's wanted a higher quality product, he said. That and the weak U.S. dollar are helping Northwest processors compete better with Canadian fry plants, he added.

There still will be about 160,000 acres of potatoes grown in Washington, Lathim said.

"This is a better situation. There is a known home for those potatoes when they go into the ground," Lathim said. "Don't plant something unless you have a home for it."





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