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Smaller crop size, good quality for Idaho potato growers

The 2017 Idaho potato harvest got under way in the earliest fields in the days immediately following the “Great American Eclipse” on Aug. 21. It might also have appropriately been called the “Great Idaho Potato Eclipse,” since the path of totality swept across about 90 percent of the state’s potato production regions, and those outside of the path of totality still witnessed a 97 percent eclipse or better.IPC-Consumer-1-Frank-MuirFrank Muir

That does not affect the potatoes themselves in any way, of course, but nonetheless, the Idaho Potato Commission is making the most of the fact in the wake of the highly hyped historic heavenly phenomenon by referring to Idaho potatoes from the 2017 harvest as having been “kissed by the eclipse.”

“We are having fun with that,” IPC President and Chief Executive Officer Frank Muir said. He expects consumers to have fun with it as well. “We have an image we sent out with a press release talking about that. I do acknowledge it is all marketing.”

While it may not necessarily be due to the eclipse, Idaho potato growers are nonetheless finding reasons to be optimistic about the 2017 crop.

Potato farmers in Idaho saw below-cost pricing for their efforts during much of the 2016-17 marketing year due to a large 2016 crop and an abundance of small sizes. Movement was strong, however, with the volume of product shipped from Idaho exceeding the prior year by 12 percent, and by summer, supplies were becoming tight, enabling prices to strengthen during the summer months.

Planted acreage for the 2017 harvest was down, however, and early indications, as the harvest got under way the end of August, were that yields might be down a bit as well, factors that are expected to keep prices firm going into the new marketing year.

With the harvest just starting, shippers said it was too early to know for sure what the size profile of the crop would be, but most concurred that from what they had seen from the first few days of harvest that the crop would have a good mix of sizes to meet the needs of various customers.

Quality appeared to be good as well in the early fields, with no problems yet surfacing that would negatively affect the marketability of the crop.

That assessment is “consistent with what I am hearing,” Muir told The Produce News Sept. 6.

The smaller crop will present some challenges, he said, “but prices should continue to go up, and that will be positive for growers,” giving them better returns than they have seen for a while.”

This year, “we are harvesting 308,000 acres,” Muir said. “That is 15,000 acres less than last year, so that should bode well for prices, we think, coming into the new year.”

What remained in storage from the 2016 harvest “is moving fast and is cleaning out quickly,” he said. Prices have been tightening to reflect the dwindling supplies, “and I hope those prices continue to hold firm as we go into the new crop. They should.”

“The crop this year is looking very promising,” said Eric Beck, director of marketing for Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC in Idaho Falls, ID. “We are looking forward to a good mix of sizes — a good spectrum across all size profiles. We have had pretty good growing conditions this year,” with hot afternoons but cooler nights, “and so far, things are looking pretty optimistic for what the crop is going to bring this year. The quality looks to be sound.”

Nick Proia, vice president of business development for Kingston Fresh in Idaho Falls, noted Aug. 29 that last year’s crop had “a smaller profile” and that “last year was not a great year for the growing side of the business. We are in the middle of evaluating what that is going to look like this year.”

Although there are fewer acres planted, he said, early indications from Kingston’s fields were that yields may be up slightly and the size profile may again be on the smaller side. “We are making adjustments with our customers so we can keep them in the right size product at the right price point,” he said. “You have to react to the way the crop comes out.”

“Idaho had great shipping numbers for last year’s crop,” Derek Peterson, vice president of sales and marketing at Wilcox Fresh in Rexburg, ID, said Sept. 5. Although prices were disappointingly low for much of the year, “I feel we ended up the crop on a good note. This summer, we saw bullish prices, which the growers were very grateful for, from May through July. It was good to see that even though we were shipping heavy,” the prices firmed through the summer months. “I think that set the tone for this coming year.”

Acreage is down for the state, Peterson affirmed, “and I think we are anticipating yields to be off a little bit, too,” and with the combination of those factors, “we are looking at a shorter crop ahead of us.” However, he expects quality to be good. “We have had ideal growing conditions. Nothing raises any red flags” with regard to quality, he said.

As for size profile, “we have farms that will be on the small side and some that we will get some size out of,” Peterson continued. “We are hearing the same thing out of all the growers we work with, not just our own farms. It is really a pretty mixed crop as far as size goes. I’d say a good balance, really. There are a lot of things to be optimistic about the coming year.”