With COVID-19 closures in place all across the United States, and even the world, restaurant demand for potatoes has fallen. According to Frank Muir, CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission, 60% of Idaho potatoes go to restaurants. Samantha Vanderwalker reports for The Jefferson Star.
Idaho potato farmers worked to adapt their crops to go to retail instead of food service, sending 50 lbs. crates to grocers for displays. Videos on social media of people deliberately coughing on produce further set back growers as they now had to start bagging potatoes instead of placing them in cartons, losing time and money.
According to Muir, 2020 potato prices started off strong. March showed more potato purchases than the days prior to Thanksgiving 2019.
“We’re trying to move crops in unprecedented times,” Muir said. “Prices were strong but they’ve been dipping. We can’t replace 60% of the food service loss.”
Muir says from a government perspective, the National Potato Council has been making efforts to work with senators and congressman to get surpluses bought, as government ordered shutdowns caused for reductions in contracts.
Surplus potatoes could go to food pantries in a time when the demand for welfare services has risen, Muir said.
On May 4, the USDA announced they would be purchasing $50 million in surplus potatoes. This will be the largest purchase of all specialty crops as a part of the USDA’s Section 32 food purchase.
“Unfortunately, that’s just a drop in the bucket,” said Stephanie Mickelsen, CFO at Mickelsen Farms. “We’ve had some challenging years and I think a lot of farmers were expecting to catch up this year. …Between the freezes we’ve had and now the demand for potatoes dropping off, it’s going to be tough.”
Mickelsen believes that to help the potato producers, the economy needs to open, restaurants needs to open and confidence needs to be put back into the economy.