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Potato yields down, prices excellent

Idaho Falls—The Thanksgiving holiday drove potato prices up and a trucking shortage might keep them there. 

That's the word from growers who are basking in strong prices but worry about getting spuds to market.

“The market is pretty good,” said producer Bryan Searle out of Shelley, “but we’re having trouble shipping potatoes right now. We can’t find enough trucks or railcars and that might be helping the prices and it’s definitely working in our favor but its something we worry about.”

Over the Thanksgiving, holiday retailers told the Packer magazine that consumer bags of potatoes flew off grocery store shelves. Packer reports that producers harvested larger potatoes this year and there are fewer small sized potatoes for the small bag market.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 50-pound cartons of five 10-pound film bags of russet norkotahs spiked from $5.50 per carton on Sept. 5 to $6 per carton by Nov. 1, with russet burbanks at $6.50 per carton for the same pack on Nov. 1. Prices at the same time last year were $4.50 to $5 per carton.

Russet norkotah 50-count potatoes are $9 per carton, compared with $12 for 80 count cartons. Prices for both sizes were well above a year ago when 50 count norkotahs were $5.50 per carton and 80 count norkotahs were $6 per carton in early November.

Bryan Mickelsen of Mickelsen Farms outside of Rigby says yields were down but quality very good with sizes all over the charts.

“We had big, middle and mediums and our sizes were all over the place. We had an excellent quality crop but the size range varied from field to field. We had to adapt a little bit, but it worked well with the way we market," said Mickelsen.

The Packer reports that everyone has the big potatoes but the smaller grocery store sizes are hard to find this season. The 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s are short and producers specializing in those sizes made money.

“What I've seen is demand is good across the board,” said Searle. “We have decent size here in the Shelley area but I haven’t seen a shortage of smaller potatoes.”

According to the USDA’s Potato size and grading report, the market is short on smaller size spuds but demand and prices are up.

The report out last week revealed that potatoes in the 2-inch or 4 oz. minimum size and grade requirements for US No. 1 potatoes were 79.7 percent of the total that's down from 82.0 percent last year. Processing grade No. 2’s with a 1.5-inch minimum, accounted for just 15.0 percent of this year's crop. 

“After three years of terrible market prices, finally prices are very good for this time of year, and with lower yields its gathering strength,” said Searle

Mickelsen says his research shows that Idaho potatoes could be down 3% to 5% this year and that could keep prices up throughout the winter.

“Most of the projections show that prices will remain steady, at these levels, that's good and there’s a smaller crop so it looks like prices will hold so that's good and its good for everybody,” said Mickelsen.

Mickelsen said the market could climb to $6.50 per carton for 10-pound bags and that’s well above price levels over the past few years. Last year, delivered prices for cartons of 10-pound bags of Idaho potatoes to the Midwest markets was about $9.50-10. This week it is $11. 

“I'm happy with this year, especially after three years of bad prices. There are farmers just hanging on by the fingernails and finally this year we have decent prices! These prices are welcome. We have growers that have lower yields but the quality is excellent and market prices are good,” said Searle.