Large potato crop pushing prices lower

by Ron Sterk
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Although potatoes are grown across the United States, plantings are heaviest in states that escaped the past summer’s historic drought, resulting in a production increase in 2012 and potentially lower prices in 2013.

In its November Crop Production report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated U.S. 2012 total potato production at 467,203,000 cwts, up 9% from 429,647,000 cwts in 2011 and the largest since the record crop of 513,544,000 cwts in 2000. It’s the second consecutive year of significantly greater production after the 2010 crop of 404,273,000 cwts, which was the smallest since 402,110,000 cwts in 1990.

The key fall crop, which accounts for 90% of total (all-seasons) production, was estimated at 422,016,000 cwts in 2012, up 8% from 391,180,000 cwts last year. Harvested area of fall potatoes was estimated at 991,500 acres, up 6% from 2011, and average yield was estimated at 426 cwts per acre, up 10% from a year earlier.

“In Idaho, growing conditions were favorable, leading to a yield that if realized will be the highest on record,” the U.S.D.A. said. “Record high yields are also forecast in North Dakota and Massachusetts.” The Idaho fall crop was expected to be the second largest ever.

In Michigan, where many of the state’s fruit growers faced disaster after a late frost hit early-blooming trees, potato yields were expected to be good despite the summer’s high temperatures and dry conditions, the U.S.D.A. said.

Idaho remains by far the nation’s largest producer, accounting for about a third of the fall crop with 2012 production estimated at 143,240,000 cwts. Washington is easily the second largest potato growing state with 98,175,000 cwts, or 23% of the 2012 fall crop. No other state produces more than 10% of the fall crop, with Wisconsin at 28,665,000 cwts (7%), North Dakota at 25,200,000 cwts (6%) and Oregon rounding out the top five with 23,255,000 cwts (5.5%).

The three Pacific Northwest states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington account for 63% of U.S. fall potato production.

In its most recent quarterly Vegetables and Pulses Outlook, the U.S.D.A. said fresh potato prices through July 2012 were down about $2.75 a cwt from a year earlier, while processing prices were up 22c a cwt, resulting in an overall decline of $1.18 a cwt. When that estimate was made the U.S.D.A. 2012 total potato production forecast was 459 million cwts, 2% below the November estimate.

“If these prices hold until December, prices for fresh potatoes are projected to average $10 per cwt and for processing potatoes will average $8.06 per cwt,” the U.S.D.A. said in its September Outlook. “Overall, potato prices in 2012 are expected to be around $8.23 per cwt nationally, about equal to 2009 prices.” Prices received for all potatoes in 2011 averaged $9.41 a cwt, up 21c from 2010, the U.S.D.A. said. Fresh potatoes averaged $12.82 a cwt in 2011, up 11c from 2010, and processing potatoes averaged $7.84 a cwt, up 43c from the prior year.

Historically, about a third of total potato production was sold fresh, about 60% was processed and about 5% was used for seed with “shrink” and a small amount for animal feed accounting for the rest. But the two largest categories are changing, including strong gains in french fry and potato chip consumption, despite the push for healthy eating.

“The disposition for the 2011 crop shows a second year of a higher share for processing potato sales and a lower share for table stock,” the U.S.D.A. said. “The long-term trend for relative utilization is up for frozen fries and down for other frozen potatoes. The market shares for chips and starch/flour/meal are also on the rise relative to preserved and canned products, which are down.”

U.S.D.A. data show table stock (fresh) accounted for 25.8% of total potato production sold in 2011, down from 32.5% in 1990, while the processing share rose from 60.4% in 1990 to 66.7% in 2011. Frozen french fries accounted for 29.5% of total use (49% of the processing total) in 1990 and 36.3% in 2011 (54% of processing). Twelve per cent of total production sold was used to make chips in 1990 (20% of processing) compared with 15% in 2011 (22% of processing).

Domestic french fry consumption has held about steady at 44 lbs per capita since 2006, the U.S.D.A. said, while consumption of other frozen potato products has dropped by half, from 8.5 lbs per person in 2007 to 4.2 lbs in 2011. Overall U.S. per capita potato consumption has declined 12% in the past five years, from 125 lbs in 2007 to 110 lbs in 2011, the U.S.D.A. said, with fresh consumption also declining gradually.

The decline in domestic consumption was attributed to “the incrementally smaller supply of potatoes as production has not kept pace with U.S. population growth,” the U.S.D.A. said. But also contributing to the decline was another significant trend – sharply rising exports.

“From 2000 to 2009 the United States was a net importer of potato products in volume terms,” the U.S.D.A. said. “Starting in 2010, exports exceeded imports and have risen rapidly.”

Japan is the largest importer of U.S. frozen fried potatoes and Canada of fresh potatoes.

The U.S.D.A. will issue revised potato price and use forecasts in its Dec. 18 Vegetables and Pulses Outlook.
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