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Freak fall weather could reduce U.S. potato supplies

By
Jessie Higgins
After losing a substantial percentage of their crop to an early winter freeze, growers are worried about more potatoes rotting in storage this year. Photo courtesy of the Idaho Potato Commission
After losing a "substantial" percentage of their crop to an early winter freeze, growers are worried about more potatoes rotting in storage this year. Photo courtesy of the Idaho Potato Commission

EVANSVILLE, Ind., Oct. 29 (UPI) -- Potatoes could be in short supply during the coming year after several fall weather events hindered harvests in key areas.

Temperatures dropped well below freezing for several days in Idaho, the nation's No. 1 potato-producing state, while much of the crop still was in the ground. Meanwhile, North Dakota, which ranks fourth in potato production, has had so much rain this fall that growers fear they will be unable to complete their harvest.

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"For some areas, the losses could be substantial," said Kam Quarles, CEO of the National Potato Council of Washington, D.C., which advocates for America's potato growers. "It's just been a really chaotic weather pattern this year."

Growers in both states are assessing the damage, Quarles said. But it is clear that supplies will be down.

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"We're looking at one of the shortest supplies we've had in a long time," said Travis Blacker, industry relations director for the Idaho Potato Commission.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture noted in its National Potato and Onion Report on Friday that potato demand exceeded supply in parts of Idaho, North Dakota and Minnesota.

It is too soon to know how much consumer prices will be impacted, potato industry experts said.

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"It is going to affect consumer prices," Blacker said. "Potatoes are pretty cheap, so it's probably not going to go crazy. But they will go up."

The biggest impact will be felt by growers, Blacker added. "This is going to be pretty devastating for a lot of farmers."

In Idaho, which produces nearly 30 percent of U.S. potatoes, a freak fall blizzard pushed temperatures below freezing from Oct. 9 to 12, while harvest was still underway.

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"We had three days in a row that got down to 15 degrees," Blacker said. "Having three days hit the teens is crazy for October."

The cold weather froze potatoes in the ground. Frozen potatoes cannot be harvested. Once they thaw, they quickly rot.

The commission estimates that 15 to 20 percent of Idaho's potatoes still were in the ground when the freezing weather hit.

"On our own operations, we left about 10 percent of our crop in the ground," said Lynn Wilcox, who farms roughly 4,100 acres in Idaho's Snake River Valley. "And, of the remaining 90 percent, at least 30 percent of that is in danger of rotting."

Wilcox said he will be watching his stored potatoes closely for signs of rot.

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"Many of our neighbors and friends are all in the same situation," he said. "It is going to be a lot of work in the months to come."

More than 1,000 miles to the east, potato growers in North Dakota's Red River Valley are having troubles of their own.

North Dakota experienced the same freak fall blizzard, but unlike Idaho, the weather warmed before many spuds froze.

However, an unusually wet fall has prevented growers from getting tractors into their fields. As winter approaches, growers fear their potatoes will freeze before they can get to them.

"Temperatures are the haunting factor now," said Mike Torgerson, CEO of Associated Potato Growers, a potato cooperative in North Dakota's Red River Valley. "Temperatures are going down. I think by late [this] week, it will all be over."

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