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 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.
Jacob Campbell, an insurance agent with the Leavitt Group, said some East Idaho potato growers recently gave his company nearly 13,000 pounds of fresh russet potatoes to give away to the public.
Campbell said the Leavitt Group plans to give away the spuds in 10-pound bags from 10 a.m. to noon on May 1 from its locations in Idaho Falls, 500 S. Woodruff Ave.; Rigby, 153 E. Main St.; and Rexburg, 135 W. Main St.
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation has also 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 Northern 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 Northern Idaho.
Oakley farmer Ryan Cranney said his processor, McCain Foods, cut his contract for spud acres by 16 percent, and he’s also had to reduce his acreage of fresh spuds raised for Sun Valley Potatoes, based in Rupert, by 20 percent.
He’s shifting those acres to mustard seed, beans and irrigated pasture.
Based on recent cuts to his own commercial spud acres and to his seed customers’ acres, he found himself with a surplus of seed potatoes he raised last fall for planting this spring.
“I started making calls around the state to see if anybody could use them, maybe to make dehydrated flakes, and they all just laughed at me,” Cranney said.
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 good will 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.”
On the morning of April 24, Cranney said he dumped some additional spuds, and several regional food banks showed up at his farm to claim spuds from his pile. Cranney also found a trucking company willing to provide free freight for a semi-load of spuds he donated to help people in need in the Bronx in New York City.
The story of his donation has been covered internationally on CNN, Fox News, Live with Kelly and Ryan, ABC news and NPR. He’s received supportive messages from people in Costa Rica, Belgium, Kenya, Colombia and several other foreign countries.
“I can’t even describe to you how many notes and messages and thank yous and blessings I’ve received from all over the world,” Cranney said.
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.
“We went from a short, tight crop and everybody was scrambling to fill their contracts, and then this thing flipped upside down when those sales from food service went away,” Cranney said. “We’re fortunate we had a short crop or we would have really been in trouble.”
Rick Naerebout, CEO of Idaho Dairyman’s Association, hasn’t heard of specific examples of dairies and feedlots feeding potatoes but he has no doubt that it’s happening.
“If they’re giving away potatoes it only makes sense if they’ve got a feedlot nearby they’d sell to a dairy and recoup a little bit of revenue,” Naerebout said.
American Falls farmer Kamren Koompin said his processor, Lamb Weston, cut his potato acreage by more than 40 percent. Koompin said the average acreage cut by Lamb Weston growers has been closer to 25 percent, but his farm didn’t have an “evergreen” contract, which caps the amount an individual farm’s spud contracts can increase or decrease in a given year.
Koompin started planting his potatoes on April 20. He’ll also be planting some previously unplanned corn and spring wheat, in addition to some spud acres that will be raised without a contract to put some of his excess treated potato seed to good use.
Koompin believes government assistance programs approved amid the coronavirus outbreak will help defray losses on farms and will limit the acreage of un-contracted potatoes.
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.”