Idaho Potato Industry Shows Signs of Recovery
Idaho’s potato industry has suffered considerable losses due to the restrictions and shutdowns imposed during the coronavirus pandemic. But major efforts by the industry that were coordinated by the state and national groups that represent it, have helped potato producers endure, and have helped U.S. consumers learn how important spuds are. That was one of the main messages during the Idaho Potato Commission’s annual, “The Big Idaho Potato Harvest Meeting,” which was held virtually on November 12.
During the first few months of 2020, Idaho and U.S. potato farmers were receiving prices for their spuds that were well above normal, state and national potato industry leaders told people who participated in the online meeting. Then the COVID-19 restrictions and shutdowns hit and things quickly changed: “The potato industry […] was generally having a strong year and then March happened and the shutdown threatened the livelihood of farmers in Idaho and across the nation,” said Kam Quarles, CEO of the National Potato Council.
About 60% of the nation’s potato production goes to the foodservice industry and those channels were virtually eliminated almost overnight, causing a major backlog of spuds. “The backlog of potatoes was so big it could fill the U.S. Capitol 14 times over,” Quarles said.
With 60% of potato growers’ market shut down, “the potato industry was facing severe harm,” IPC president and CEO Frank Muir agreed. At the same time, retail sales of potatoes and potato products soared. That led the state and national potato industry to pivot from their normal programs and undertake a major effort to rapidly shift potatoes from foodservice channels to retail outlets, Muir said. That resulted in a huge amount of potatoes being shifted to grocery stores and other retail outlets, where consumers were quickly buying them.
Fortunately, despite the coronavirus-related restrictions and other challenges posed by the pandemic, “demand is still very strong,” said Potatoes USA president and CEO Blair Richardson. He said there has been a 15% increase so far this year in retail sales of potatoes and spuds account for 22.4% of all vegetables sold at grocery stores this year, ranking them number one in that category.
State and national potato industry leaders, assisted by Idaho’s congressional delegation, also pushed for relief from USDA for potato farmers impacted by the COVID-related shutdowns, industry leaders said.
Those efforts helped result in potatoes being included in USDA’s bonus buy program of surplus commodities as well as in USDA’s food box program. In addition, more than USD119m have been provided so far to potato farmers through the federal Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.
Richardson said the clear steps the nation’s potato industry took during the COVID-19 crisis have put it on a path to recovery. “Hopefully, the actions we took can be applied to (other) challenges in the future,” he added.