September 20, 2020

Potato quality muddies price waters

CARIBOU — Poor potato quality and a seeming change of heart by a major processor have muddied influential potato-price waters in the Pacific Northwest.

A week ago, there were high hopes that early processing prices in Idaho could send a signal that the season’s prices to fall harvesting states’ growers could be “better than break-even.”

Idaho growers and friers had been negotiating at an impasse between $4.87 and $5 per hundredweight, when Lamb-Weston came through with $5.51, a $5.05 base price with “contract incentives” worth 46 cents.

It seemed to be a major break in prices for the 1990 crop. It wasn’t a great price, but represented a fair profit when considering U.S. acreage is up 6 percent from last year.

Then Idaho open-market buying took a downward twist. Lamb Weston reduced its price 25 cents, to a $4.80 base. With “contract incentives and disincentives,” this would average about $5.26 per hundredweight.

“At the higher price they were offering a week ago, Lamb had a good response … so they are testing the waters 25 cents lower,” said Harry Fraser, the editor of Fraser’s Potato Newsletter of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. “So far, very few sign-ups are reported (at the lower price).”

To make matters lively, several growers in eastern Idaho now say they have open-market offers from J.R. Simplot at $5.50 per 100 pounds.

Shepodies and Burbanks delivered to northern Maine fry plants commanded $4.10 less than in the West, where more processors compete for supplies.

“Quality is poor” in the basins of Oregon and Washington,” Fraser added. “Now that they are 10 percent into the Burbank harvest, it’s evident that the worst fears about quality are coming true.”

Six weeks of extreme heat took a heavy toll on the region’s Russet Burbanks.

“Quality has muddied the price waters in the Pacific Northwest. Growers who do have good quality will be able to command top dollar at some stage. Others are vulnerable right now, especially if fresh-packers don’t want their spuds either,” Fraser said.

Street barrel prices to Maine growers at $7 thus far were below production costs estimated at $10 to $11. Maine yields on early varieties were estimated to be at least 20 hundredweight per acre less than a year ago. Industry officials said it was too early to estimate Maine yields on late-growing potatoes.

Maine’s harvest on Wednesday was about 40 percent completed, according to Wayne Smith of the Maine Potato Price Stabilization office. The Maine harvest was expected to be more than 50 percent finished by the weekend.

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