PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Farmers in the Northwest are scrambling for ways to offload 165,000 tons of potatoes after overestimating the public’s demand for the root vegetable in 2023. With the average large russet weighing roughly 6 to 10 ounces, farmers in Oregon, Washington Idaho and Alberta, Canada are dealing with a combined surplus of 600 million potatoes.
Industry experts like Oregon Potato Commission Director Gary Roth told KOIN 6 News that Northwest farmers planted an additional 52,00 acres of potatoes in 2023 in anticipation of the rising demand seen during the pandemic. While the demand for potatoes remains steady, Roth said that farmers simply planted more potatoes than they can sell.
“Coming off the pandemic and the ensuing production year, there was higher demand than relative supply and so the industry as a whole assumed that there would be a need for more production by the farmers,” Roth said. “Farmers make those decisions individually, and more farmers put more acres into production than might have been anticipated. As a result, I don’t think anyone is going to be hungry for potatoes this year.”
Pacific Coast Trading Co. sales manager Kayla Burks Told KOIN 6 News that last season’s spike in demand was likely related to inflation. With families cutting back on grocery bills, potatoes were a popular option for cheap meals.
“In the past two years, ever since COVID, the demand for potatoes has skyrocketed,” Burks said. “Everyone is trying to cut costs and keep things cheaper. Potatoes can feed a lot of people.”
While potato popularity has risen in recent years, current market conditions show that the demand isn’t meeting the growth that farmers anticipated. Potato Marketing Association of North America President Dale Lathim told KOIN 6 News that the excess potatoes could fill roughly 5,000 semi-trucks. With so many spuds lying around, farmers have resorted to selling them to cattle farms for cheap, donating them to food banks and destroying what’s left.
“Across Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alberta, there appear to be about 165,000 tons of potatoes that do not appear to have a market at this time,” Lathim said. “A large portion of that has already been disposed of in non-traditional markets such as cattle feed, food banks, etc.”
In most cases, insurance doesn’t cover overproduction losses, Roth said. As a result, local farmers will lose money on the unsold crops. While potatoes can be kept for up to a year under the right conditions, Roth said that the cost of keeping the potatoes in the right conditions becomes more costly with time.
“Every step in the supply chain is a cost of doing business,” he said. “You can’t assume that you can buy a product at a lesser amount and not incur a holding cost, particularly on the frozen side. The potato itself is a rather small percentage of the cost of the end product. Potatoes that are held in storage by farmers are held in specially engineered storage building facilities to keep air moving through them at a specific temperature, so there’s an energy cost whether you’re holding potatoes fresh or whether you’re holding them frozen.”
According to USDA monthly producer price indexes, the price of all potatoes fell by 46.2% in September. However, Burks said the price drop may be less noticeable by the time the potatoes reach grocery stores.
“Overall, I would say inflation in general has increased retail prices across the produce industry,” Burks said. “Also, we’re seeing labor shortages in our packing lines every day. We can only run so many potatoes across the line, so the shortage of labor causes an increase in price.”
Roth said that the issue is ongoing as farmers are still dealing with the surplus. For now, experts anticipate an abundant supply of potatoes for Thanksgiving.
“There are current market conditions, as production numbers come in you can look forward,” he said. “What we’re looking at is there are plenty of potatoes on the market.”