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COVID-19 has taken Idaho and U.S. potato industry ‘on a roller-coaster ride’

Total acres of Idaho’s iconic potato crop could decrease significantly this year as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

Although there was a rush on potatoes at grocery stores early on, that has abated somewhat and has not been enough to make up for a major decrease in sales of potatoes and potato products through foodservice channels, according to industry leaders.

“We expect to see a significant cut in acres this year,” said Idaho Potato Commission President and CEO Frank Muir. He said reaction to COVID-19 has had a major impact on the potato processing industry and industry officials have been told processors are planning to cut acreage by 10-20 percent in 2020.

Muir said growers should not rely solely on data from the past several years to make planting decisions in 2020 and he encouraged farmers to have a customer for their spuds lined up before they plant this year. “This is different than anything we’ve ever experienced before,” he said.

Zak Miller, a potato farmer and director of commodities for Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, encouraged spud growers to think long and hard this year when making their planting decisions.

Some french fry processors in Idaho have cut contracted acreage by 10-20 percent this year, North American Potato Market News Publisher Bruce Huffaker told Idaho Farm Bureau Federation members and industry leaders April 9 during a conference call.

Idaho potato growers need to receive about $7 per hundredweight (cwt) of potatoes they produce in order to break even. “If we don’t cut back on acres, the best market (in the coming year) may be $2 per cwt, which isn’t enough to pay the bills,” Huffaker said.

Reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak has taken the Idaho and U.S. potato industry on a roller-coaster ride.

While potato sales at the retail level are still pretty decent, they are showing signs of slowing down, said IPC Commissioner Randy Hardy, a potato farmer from Oakley. At the same time, sales of potato products through foodservice channels have basically ceased, he added.

“Sales to restaurants, cafeterias, schools, all those things have slammed to a screeching halt,” he said. “Nobody (in foodservice) is buying right now. It’s very, very, very slow.”

The COVID-19 outbreak has had a myriad of impacts on the potato industry and it’s a fluid situation, Huffaker said. “It’s changing day to day and almost hour to hour,” he said.

He said some restaurants will never reopen, and consumers’ discretionary income won’t be the same for a while, so people will not have the money to eat out as regularly as before. “All this suggests that demand for potatoes is going to be declining next year,” Huffaker said. “How much it will go down nobody knows.”

Read the full report in Bingham County Chronicle here

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Lukie Pieterse, Editor and Publisher of Potato News Today

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