While many potato growers across the nation are being forced to mash their spuds into the ground, Wisconsin’s spud producers aren’t feeling as hard a hit from COVID-19 as their western counterparts, Carol Spaeth-Bauer of Wisconsin State Farmer reports.
In big western potato producing states like Idaho, Washington and Oregon where the growing season is a month or two ahead of Wisconsin, some growers had to make the difficult decision to disc some fields of potatoes under.
A vast majority of their potato production goes to the processing food sector that supplies potato products to schools, restaurants and hotels. When the coronavirus shut those places down, that sector of the potato industry “basically fell off a cliff,” explained Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association.
About 20% of Wisconsin’s potato production goes to McCain Foods to be made into french fries, hash browns and tater tots for the frozen processing food sector which was hardest hit in the pandemic. Wisconsin contracts for that processing sector were cut 25%, Houlihan said, but with the reduction affecting less than a quarter of the state’s total potato industry, the impact was only about a 5% loss on the state’s entire industry.
While potatoes destined for french fries, hash browns and tater tots are a different variety than those sold in the fresh market, it’s still a good potato. And it’s better than having those potatoes go to waste or rot.
“It hasn’t been a huge problem in Wisconsin, but what is looming ahead is a flooding of the fresh market,” Houlihan said.
When potatoes from all the western states, along with those from Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota are harvested in August, September and October, “we’re facing a massive oversupply situation in the fall,” Houlihan said.
With “so many potatoes in the pipeline right now,” Houlihan said the real concern in Wisconsin is about “the prices to growers dropping below the cost of production once we hit the fall.”