Pandemic leads to Idaho potato market woes

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) — The coronavirus pandemic has caused a once strong potato market to make an abrupt about-face, leading some Idaho growers to dump surplus spuds from storage cellars or to feed them to cattle.

Just a few weeks ago, Idaho potato farmers were enjoying some of their best fresh prices in recent memory and anticipated supplies would run short in the coming summer. The combination of lower spud yields and widespread frost damage during the 2019 harvest had contributed to a smaller statewide crop than normal, the Post Register reported Saturday.

The critical restaurant and food service market, however, has taken a dive due to stay-at-home orders amid the COVID-19 crisis. In response, potato processors have cut back on contracted acres with farmers, and fresh potato prices have plummeted, even as demand at grocery stores has been strengthened.

According to USDA Market News reports for the Twin Falls and Burley district, 50-pound cartons of restaurant-grade potatoes were fetching sky-high prices, between $22 and $23, on March 16. By the April 23 report, however, carton prices had fallen to between $10 and $12.

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation has sought to make large purchases of potatoes to help the state’s farmers while also providing badly needed food assistance to residents who have lost jobs because of the coronavirus crisis.

A spokesman for the organization said all of the county Farm Bureaus in north Idaho have pitched in to purchase a semi-truck load of potatoes raised in eastern Idaho. About 1,100 50-pound bags of fresh potatoes will be shared among 18 food pantries in north Idaho.

Oakley farmer Ryan Cranney said his processor, McCain Foods, cut his contract for spud acres by 16%, and he’s also had to reduce his acreage of fresh spuds raised for Sun Valley Potatoes, based in Rupert, by 20%.

He’s shifting those acres to mustard seed, beans and irrigated pasture.

Cranney ultimately decided to dump about 70,000 pounds of potatoes into a pile on his farm and posted a message April 14 on Facebook: “FREE POTATOES — We started dumping potatoes today as we have no home for them because of the COVID-19 disaster. The potato supply chain has definitely been turned upside down.”

Cranney could have fed the surplus spuds to his cows, but he said the goodwill generated from throughout the world as a result of the gesture has been worth far more to his family and staff than the feed value of the crop. Within hours of making the post, a stream of traffic arrived, and the cars kept coming for the next five days.

“I didn’t think in a million years there would be that kind of reaction from people,” Cranney said. “We had several thousand people come out. A lot of them took eight, 10 or 12 bags apiece.”

Cranney said dairies are starting to feed potatoes to cattle — acquiring the spuds for roughly the cost to growers of transporting them — and he expects more growers will begin dumping spuds in the coming weeks.

Idaho farmers planted 315,000 acres of potatoes in 2019, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“The 2019 crop, at the demand before the virus, was going to be a little short and it was going to be interesting to see how we transitioned from 2019 crop into 2020 crop,” Koompin said. “Now they’re saying the 2019 crop will take us well into the 2020 crop.”