US: Industry Asks Government to Buy Potato Backlog
The COVID-19 shutdown of U.S. restaurants has forced Washington potato processors to reduce production, leaving more than 1bn pounds of last year’s potato crop stranded in storage, even as farmers finish planting this year’s crop. In light of this, growers are asking the USDA to buy the backlog of potatoes, capitalpress.com reports.
“Processors have roughly 1bn pounds of potatoes from the 2019 crop still in storage that cannot be used in a timely manner,” said Dale Lathim, executive director of the Potato Growers of Washington.
The voluntary organization negotiates pre-season contracts with major potato processing companies on behalf of 65 member growers, representing more than 80% of the frozen processing contracted acres in the state.
“A government program to buy all of those potatoes would cost roughly USD100m,” Lathim said.
“Then they could be dumped,” he said. “That way, those potatoes would not be interfering with any other markets and the entire industry would benefit from those dollars and it would be the most cost-effective bang for the buck dollar that the taxpayer or anyone else could use.”
As all regional processing plants are cutting back on production, the situation is very devastating to some individuals, Lathim said.
Some farmers growing for several companies have been cut back as much as 75%. Much of that acreage had already been planted.
“The economic hit to a handful of growers is bigger than anything I’ve seen in my 26 years,” Lathim said.
The Columbia Basin is hit harder because processors there primarily serve high-end quick service restaurants, a segment of the restaurant industry which is hurt the most, Lathim said.
Total contracted acreage in the Pacific Northwest is normally 225,000 and currently 55,000 acres have been cut, which is a 24% reduction.
The Idaho Potato Commission, Washington Potato Commission and other potato organizations are waiting on a pending USDA announcement to help the commodity groups most affected by foodservice shutdowns.
“We’re hoping they can immediately buy as many fresh potatoes out of storage as well as processed potato products and get them to food banks,” said Chris Voigt, executive director of the commission.
But food banks may also have cold storage and distribution capacity issues for the size of excess potatoes and French fries available, Voigt said. Some potatoes may need to be diverted to livestock feed channels.
The potatoes would also go into military or hospital use, any possible place for produce to go, said Frank Muir, executive director of the Idaho Potato Commission.
“Our viewpoint is the government made the decision to shut down the foodservice sector for the safety of America,” Muir said. “As a result, it created another problem in other areas of the economy.”
The commission is working to move as many foodservice potatoes into retail stores as possible.
“You can’t knock out 60% of our industry and think we’re going to somehow make all of it up,” Muir said.
Voigt advises growers to document their expenses and losses. They’re working with USDA and other produce groups to create a quick, easy system to get dollars flowing as fast as possible, he said.