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COVID-19 crisis: Idaho seed potato growers try to cope with 40 million pounds of unwanted spuds

Caribou County farmer Jason Stoddard is one of many Eastern Idaho seed potato growers who have been stuck with lots of spuds that will never be planted due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Commercial potato farmers throughout the state have canceled seed orders, having had their contracts with processors scaled back due to lost food service demand amid the pandemic. Industry officials estimate roughly 40 million pounds of Idaho seed potatoes have gone unsold or been returned to seed growers.

Based on the uncertainty about the future, many Idaho seed growers are also planting fewer acres this spring of seed that will be delivered next year. Stoddard managed to sell some of his excess inventory to area dehydration plants.

“A fair amount of ours had been shipped out by the time the real crux of this hit,” said Stoddard, who has been involved in several conference calls pertaining to the issue as a member of the National Potato Council’s board of directors. But his family’s best option to move much of the surplus has been to give it away.

Over the course of a few recent days, Stoddard family children held up signs inviting passing motorists to claim their fill of red seed potatoes, which many dehydration plants won’t take. The family also posted word of the giveaway on Facebook, offering instructions about protocols to maintain social distancing and asking people to bring their own bags and boxes.

“We will resupply totes through the day if demand warrants. We have plenty of potatoes to give away,” the Facebook post stated.

Stoddard said interest in the free spuds was strong, and the public was extremely grateful. The family initially planned to do a one-day giveaway on May 14 but ultimately offered spuds for three consecutive days. On Wednesday, his staff also prepped 80 15-pound bags of red potatoes to take to the Soda Springs food bank.

“We honestly didn’t know whether people would be interested,” Stoddard said, emphasizing that seed is especially costly to grow as it requires additional inputs and its own certification process. “It’s kind of a tough thing all around, but there is some good that comes out of it.”

His family will undoubtedly plant fewer acres of seed potatoes than originally planned this spring, he said.

United Seed Potato Growers of Idaho has had a contract for the past eight years to sell spuds to dehydrators. In the past, the contract has helped member growers find a home for off-sized seed potatoes. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the market for spuds was tight. In light of the pandemic, however, that contract has been a big help for many members.

United conducts an annual acreage count, funded by the Idaho Potato Commission, with results released in mid-June. United CEO Rick Shawver expects the count will show a reduction in acreage.

“(Seed growers) are really concerned about the lack of demand created by the COVID-19 pandemic on potatoes in general. It’s kind of like, what do I do? Plant the same acres as the year before expecting the economy to rebound?” Shawver said. “It’s difficult for seed growers to figure out.”

Read the full story in the Idaho State Journal here
Photo: Stoddard children | Courtesy Stoddard family

Lukie Pieterse, Editor and Publisher of Potato News Today

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