Potato commission chief hopes for light at end tunnel in 2021

For the Basin Business Journal | January 27, 2021 1:00 AM

MOSES LAKE — While 2020 was a tough year for Columbia Basin potato growers and processors, Chris Voigt said he’s “hoping that there’s light at end of the tunnel” in 2021.

The executive director of the Washington Potato Commission said the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is likely to still affect sowing, harvesting and processing of potatoes, but 2021 is likely to be somewhere in-between the darkest days of last April and May, the booming potato market in the weeks before the outbreak.

“We’re getting halfway back to pre-pandemic times,” he said. “There is some indication from processors, an increase in contracts from last year, but it’s not quite pre-pandemic.”

“We’re about halfway off the ground, but it’s still a guessing game,” he said.

Voigt, who is scheduled to speak at this year’s Washington-Oregon Potato Conference online from Monday, Jan. 25, through Thursday, Jan. 28, said the drop in demand following the closure of most restaurants in many states hurt large numbers of potato farmers across the region and the country.

“It was devastating,” Voigt said. “Those that had potatoes in storage, they had to be given away or dumped or sold at a huge discount.”

Some farmers even had to disc up their entire crop rather than lose any more money, Voigt said, though he doesn’t know of anyone in Grant County, Washington, who had to do that.

“It was cheaper to take a big loss right away than keep growing them and take a bigger loss,” he said.

A lot of the recovery will hinge on just how quickly restaurants reopen and exports rebound, Voigt said, since those two things accounted for such a large portion of potato demand.

“Fast food restaurants are doing okay, but everything else is down,” Voigt said. “Half of our fresh potatoes went to restaurants, so prices are down quite a bit. You can get some pretty good deals on fresh potatoes right now.”

According to data published last December by Denver-based Potatoes USA, sales of U.S. potatoes to restaurants fell nearly 13% in the marketing year ending in June, 2020, while exports fell nearly 2.5%.

The export portion is crucial, since 70% of U.S. potatoes prior to the pandemic were exported, Voigt said, with major markets in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

“Some countries are really struggling, and some are okay,” Voigt said. “The Philippines was a fast-growing market, but COVID-19 hit them hard.”

The decline in exports was only partly made up for by a nearly 9% increase in supermarket potato sales, the report said.

“The good news is people are cooking more potatoes at home than they ever have,” Voigt said. “Potato consumption at home had really been slowly going down, but now we’ve seen a resurgence. Grocery store sales are up. It’s not enough to make up for the loss of food service sales, but they are up.”

“We’ve got a lot of ’em. So keep eating them,” Voigt added.

Voigt also said demand for potatoes in Europe has fallen significantly, and it doesn’t help that while fast food restaurants are still open, drive-thru isn’t a thing in Europe.

“French fry sales are way down compared to us,” he said. “So they’re exporting french fries across the world really cheap. At $300 less per ton than Washington product, it’s difficult to compete.”

Recovery hopes have been boosted by the decision from McCain Foods to resume its $300 million Othello expansion, Voigt said, which will more than double the facility’s production capacity. McCain Foods temporarily put the expansion on hold in April.

“It was good to hear that they fired it back up,” he said.

However, despite the difficulties faced by both potato growers and processors this year, Voigt said research continues into finding the potato varieties that will help create “the next great potato for french fries.”

“Shape is very important. You want a potato that’s shaped like a brick,” he said. “When you cut a potato, when it’s round, middle will be the longest pieces, but at the edges will be little. But a brick with a potato slicer, every piece will be identically long. We want long french fries.”

Currently, the leftover portions from french fry processing are used to make Tater Tots, Voigt said.

In addition, a good french fry potato has be low in sugar, low in water, resistant to disease and high-yield, he said.

It’s a lengthy process, finding or creating a new variety of potato for a specific purpose, and it can take more than a decade and require the planting of several hundred thousands of different genetic varieties and seeing how the tubers grow, harvest, store and cook.

Even then, you might not quite have everything you need, Voigt said.

“There’s an art to making french fries, and the processor can make tweaks to make a french fry better,” he said. “You might not have the perfect variety, but there are things you can do in the factory to get it closer to perfect.”

Voigt pointed to one of the most common varieties of potatoes grown, the humble Russet Burbank, created in 1876 by horticulturalist Luther Burbank.

“It’s a dog of a potato, and it wouldn’t make it today,” he said. “But we’ve been growing it so long, we’ve kind of figured out how to make it work.”