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Washington farmers’ COVID plight: ‘What do you do with a billion pounds of potatoes that you can’t sell?’

The coronavirus pandemic has left Washington’s farmers with at least a billion pounds of potatoes they can’t sell, a new crop growing without any buyers and millions of dollars in debt they have no way to pay.
Jeanette Marantos reports for the Los Angeles Times.

The state’s fertile Columbia Basin produces nearly a quarter of the potatoes grown in the United States, 10 billion pounds in 2019. The vast majority — 90% — were turned into frozen French fries and shipped to restaurants, some in the United States but mostly to Asia.

Demand has increased steadily since 2008, said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, and last year the region’s processors had more orders than spuds. This year was shaping up to be the same until the coronavirus closed restaurants and schools around the globe.

Normally, Farmer Marvin Wollman’s storage sheds would be nearly empty this time of year, but more than half his potatoes — “Let’s just say millions of pounds” — are still piled high in the cavernous buildings, which are roughly the size of a football field with roofs nearly 30 feet high.

“We’re afraid there’s still going to be potatoes in storage when we go to dig up this year’s crop in September,” Wollman said. “These are good potatoes. We don’t want to throw them away. It’s just, what do you do with them?”

As it turns out, getting rid of a billion pounds of spuds isn’t easy — or cheap. It usually takes Washington farmers a year to sell that quantity to grocery stores.

“Now we’re trying to move it in a couple months,” Voigt said.

That means each of the 2 million citizens expected to use the state’s food banks this year would have to take 500 pounds.

And moving all those potatoes would require filling at least 20,000 tractor-trailers — and paying for fuel.

The potato commission helped cover the cost of bagging and transporting Wollman’s potatoes — about 7 cents a bag — to see what was possible. Voigt said it has also started a GoFundMe page to raise $100,000 to cover the costs of giving away another million pounds of potatoes around the state over the next few weeks.

That would still leave more than 999 million pounds in storage.

Weber Family Farms members and managers Deven Johnson, left, Josh Lyebert and Adam Weber stand on $1.1 million worth of ready-to-eat russet potatoes in one of the company’s refrigerated storage bays in Quincy, Wash. (Karen Ducey / For The Times)

But the clock is ticking and farmers are facing a similar plight as COVID-19 and the closure of schools and restaurants has kinked food distribution lines all over the country.

Congress recently approved $9.5 billion for the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program to help farmers with crops they can’t sell. The maximum relief for single-commodity farmers is $125,000, but most borrow millions each year to cover their costs until their crop can be sold.

“It’s like you’re drowning in nine feet of water, and we take an inch away,” said Rep. Kim Schrier, a freshman Washington Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. “You’re still drowning.”

Washington potato farmers hope the U.S. Department of Agriculture will step in and buy their billion-pound glut, then donate the potatoes to food banks or even cattle ranchers as supplemental livestock feed.

Schrier said she couldn’t answer whether that was likely.

JM Farms — named for its husband-and-wife owners, Jordan and Mia Reed — is facing an extra disadvantage compared to many other potato farmers: They grow only Ranger russets.

The elongated shape makes that “long, perfect French fry” favored by McDonald’s and other chains, Jordan said. But unlike other varieties —including Umatillas, Clearwaters and Caribous — Rangers can not be stored.

Last October, the Reeds secured contracts from the region’s two potato processors and a $1.7-million loan to cover expenses. In March, they planted 485 acres of Ranger russets.

Then the processors called in April and canceled 75% of their contracts. They explained that the demand for fries had disappeared and their freezers were full. Suddenly the Reeds were growing 364 acres of potatoes with no place to go…

He’s considered plowing under his potatoes to grow something else — except if he does, he knows he’d lose at least $500,000 because of what he’s already spent on the spuds.

His lenders understand this isn’t his fault, he said, but a 36-year-old defaulting on $500,000? “I don’t recover from that,” he said.

Read the full and extensive report in the Los Angeles Times here

Top photo: Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, and Washington state Rep. Mary Dye (R-Pomeroy) load up a pickup truck during a free potato giveaway at the Grant County Fairgrounds in Moses Lake, Wash..(Karen Ducey / For The Times)

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