Will A Slow Start For Pacific North-west Potato Farmers lead to a French Fry shortage?

Example of a high bay frozen storage facility where potato processing companies store their 'emergency supply' of frozen french fries. This is an aerial view of the facilities of Preferred Freezer Services in Richland Washington. When this facility was built in 2015 it was the largest freezer in North America.

Spring is just now beginning to shine in much of eastern Oregon and Washington. A winter of record snowfall left the ground frozen or flooded much later than normal. As a result, farmers are getting a late start on their crops.

Chris Voigt, director of the Washington State Potato Commission recently spoke with OPB “Weekend Edition” host John Notarianni:

“We’ve had the longest winter ever.”

“Normally we start planting potatoes the end of February, but this year we weren’t able to start planting until April 1.”

Voigt said that delay is problematic because of the contracts most growers have with potato processors.

Chris Voigt:

“Typically a processor can go to a grower and say, ‘I don’t care that your potatoes aren’t fully mature yet, we need them.’”

“Harvesting potatoes a few weeks early could lead to as much of a 30% loss in yield — and profit — for farmers.”

“That’s huge.”

Now, farmers are scrambling to catch up and cram two and a half months worth of planting into one month. That means double the amount of trucks, tractors and planters, working around the clock.

Chris Voigt:

“If you try calling a potato grower right now, good luck,” Voight said. “They’re not going to return your call unless you have extra tractors or planters to help them out.”

Now, the 2019 potato crop depends on the weather. A string of 80-degree sunny days will be necessary to help farmers get back on track.

If not, the french fry companies have a backup plan: an emergency month-long supply of potatoes, currently frozen in giant warehouse freezers the size of two football fields.

The question is how far will they have to dig into those freezers to make up for a delayed potato crop. If they get down to a 25-day supply, we could see spot shortages around the country.

Chris Voigt:

“You might not have curly fries in Miami, or skin-on fries in Maine.”

And if they have to deplete their reserves down to a 10-day supply?

Chris Voigt:

“That’s where it’s going to be the french fry apocalypse.”

“But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”