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Potato production pales in 2005

November 17, 2005 by HOLLY OWENS

Both production and harvested acres for potatoes are down by 7 percent in the United States this fall, according to statistics released last week from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

But less means more this year for growers who purposefully reduced acreage in an effort to eliminate a glut of russet variety fresh market potatoes that have been lowering prices for the crop.

“That's going to give us a real positive market this year,” said Ed Staunton, chairman of United Potato Growers of the Klamath Basin, part of a newly formed nationwide cooperative of potato growers, United Potato Growers of America.

“It's positive in the fact that we're down 28 million sacks, and a great majority is fresh production,” Staunton said.

Oregon and California harvest figures were mixed.

Oregon set a new record high with an average yield of 584 hundredweight per acre, up 50 hundredweight compared to 2004. Harvested acres increased slightly to 37,100 acres, up 100 acres from 2004.

In California, average yield decreased by 6 percent for 450 hundredweight per acre, down 30 hundredweight compared to 2004. Harvested acres, at 7,200, was down this year by 5 percent.

The diversion of 7 million hundredweight of potatoes by Idaho growers from the fresh market helped stabilize prices in May, June and July and provided room for this year's crop.

The potatoes were either sold to the government for dehydration, used for cattle feed or buried.

“It definitely helped the last three months of the marketing year,” Staunton said. “If they hadn't done that there would have been a lot of old crop potatoes.”

Another tool growers are using beyond reducing acres and removing extra potatoes from the market is communicating and interacting with other growers across the nation through weekly marketing calls. Growers use the marketing calls to discuss both market demand and potato stocks.

“It's been working well,” Staunton said. “Before you've just been reading reports. Now you're talking over the phone. Marketing calls were the big reason for price increases in May, June and July.”

So far growers are seeing prices from $7 to $9 per hundredweight.

“According to statistics, we've had the best September and October we've had since 1995 on prices,” Staunton said.

And with improving prices, the temptation for some packers is to put more potatoes into the market.

“Sometimes when this happens - when people want to run potatoes - that market goes down and you can't stop that. But it's actually maintained itself for quite some time,” Staunton said. “Supply management is the No. 1 key.”

But old habits die hard.

When one year's crop sees improved prices, a grower's instinct is to plant more the next year.


“The tough thing will be trying to cut back acres this coming year,” Staunton said. “After a real good year everyone goes out and plants potatoes. After a good year everyone starts feeling the market's going to be good again.”

This year about 7,000 acres were grown in potatoes in the Klamath Basin, a reduction of 10 percent from 2004. Throughout the nation, United members set a goal of 8 percent this year.

“We shot for 8 percent, and wound up with 7,” Staunton said.

In 2006 United growers will cut acreage by 8 to 10 percent.

“If we can get everyone to plant less it's going to be a profitable year again,” Staunton said.

Another focus in the coming year will be to involve more growers in the cooperative. In the Klamath Basin, about 90 percent of fresh market growers are involved.

“Membership here is doing very well,” Staunton said. “We're talking to some growers who are very interested.”

United also is working to involve both processed potato and potato chip variety growers.

“In our area we've got a big chip grower that's interested, and I think they're going to join,” Staunton said.

In Idaho, United has worked out an agreement with the Southern Idaho Potato Cooperative, which represents process growers.

Process growers on contract often plant more acres than they'll need, Staunton said, in order to make sure they are able to meet their contract. This practice often results in potatoes that are channeled into the fresh market.

“Usually the overages come in and actually hurt the market,” Staunton said. “What United's talking about doing is controlling those overages.”

Other states the cooperative is focusing on include Maine and North Dakota, states that haven't formed a United cooperative yet.

“They reduced acres last year. They did the right thing,” Staunton said. “I think they're waiting to see how United goes.”

Staunton isn't surprised by the caution of growers in Maine and North Dakota.

“Potato farmers are very independent. Over time I think it's going to happen,” Staunton said.

On the Net: www.unitedpotatousa.com





Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM  Pacific

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