Researcher Q&A: Tommy Fleetwood, N. Carolina Department of Agriculture

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The Potato Community
Interconnectivity is a great thing. If something happens anywhere in the country, you can know about it within minutes. Look at how fast the world knew about the findings of potato cyst nematode in Idaho and Alberta.

Those lines of communication are a great thing, and can help potato growers better manage businesses. But the Internet will never supplant the old-fashioned local gathering spot where farmers stop in for a cup of coffee and the latest news. Traveling into town never used to be easy, so you only went for a reason. And news didn’t travel out to the farm, so you picked it up on the occasional trip to town for supplies.

In my town, it’s the local McDonald’s. Every morning, the parking lot is lined with pickup trucks, and farmers take over a section of tables. They shoot the breeze and exchange valuable information, passing bits of knowledge on to younger farmers.

While you may be able to get all the information you need online these days, you’re still part of a community and you can help educate your neighbors or learn from their experiences.

Researcher Q&A
Tommy Fleetwood,
Marketing Specialist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Executive Director of the North Carolina Potato Association
North Carolina growers have already started planting, so how did the acreage shake out this season?
We’re thinking is going to be down some. Our growers are already planting, they usually start around Feb. 20, so we’re still in the process of figuring out acreate. I’m not exactly sure what the acreage will be, but I’d say around 13,000 acres to 14,000 acres in potatoes this year. That’s a guess.

The high grain prices, wheat and hay, are going to take some of the acreage this year.

Part of that is, North Carolina production here all goes to fresh, there’s no storage. We have fresh market and chips – 75 percent is grown for chips. I think the chip contracts didn’t go up enough to compete with the grain prices this year, so I think t hat’s why we’re going to see some decreases in acreage.

Has the number of growers remained steady in the state?
The number of growers has decreased. Generally we see the acreage of the growers getting out of the business picked up by other, bigger growers, as we’ve seen in other agriculture industries.

Between 2,000 acres and 3,000 acres are our largest farms. We have a few between 1,000 acres and 2,000 acres, and the rest are smaller than that.

What issues are North Carolina potato growers concerned about this year?
The labor issue, I think with all the produce industry, is an uncertain thing. That’s why the high grain prices with the labor – the grain is so much easier to grow and doesn’t take as much labor to grow it and harvest it – so that’s probably part of the reason for some growers getting out of the potato business and growing more grains.

Price is always a concern. I think production costs is going to be a real significant factor, even though commodity prices are going up. Production costs are going up really significantly – the cost of fertilizers, the cost of different applications that go on potatoes and fuel.

Our harvest is June and July and it’s hard to tell, with what you’re seeing in the media about fuel prices going up, what the price of fuel is going to be. It’s a real concern with the growers.

We ship quite a few potatoes into Canada, especially to Ontario chip plants, and we were glad to get the ministerial exemption taken care of – our growers were glad to get that resolved.

John Keeling with the National Potato Council did a great job with that. We worked with him to get that resolved.

The resolution was put in place back in November, and once we get to the third year of the agreement, any potatoes that are contracted within 60 days to a Canadian company will go across the border without an inspection. That was a big issue that was kind of bothering our growers – just the uncertainty of not being able to get them across the border.

Are growers in North Carolina optimistic about the future of potato production in their state?
I think all farmers are optimistic, with the obstacles that face them. This year, with the optimism of high commodity prices – wheat, hay, soybean and even cotton – I think there’s pretty good optimism for the agricultural industries here. I think you’ll see some other farms that were growing potatoes and other produce acreage going out into the grains, which should help potato prices and prices in general.

There’s very little of the potato acreage that’s irrigated because we usually get sufficient rainfall. Last year we were very dry during growing and harvest. It usually depends on the weather systems that go across the country. We’re not like Idaho and Colorado where everything is irrigated and we can adapt to the weather conditions. TEXT


Market Report
In 2007, the U.S. potato industry produced a crop that was valued at nearly $3.2 billion dollars by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. That number declined slightly from 2006, but is $200 million higher than 2005.

More than 1.1 million acres were planted last season, almost 9,000 acres more than 2006 and almost 40,000 more acres than 2005, according to the agency. Planted acres is still well short of the nearly 1.2 million acres planted in 2004. Yields have steadily increased as well, with the average in 2007 at 398 cwt. per acre. That brings the total production for 2007 to about 449 million cwt., the highest it’s been since 2004 when growers produced 456 million cwt.

Average price, compared to 2004, is a different story. In 2004, growers averaged $5.66/cwt., and that had been decreasing from previous years. In 2007, the average price per cwt. was $7.12, only 21 cents less than 2006.

Individual state data show that prices remained fairly steady in the major potato producing states, but the total value of production from the states fluctuated based on weather conditions, yields and acres planted.

Idaho potato prices have been steady over the last three years, averaging $5.80/cwt., within 10 cents of the previous 2 years. The Idaho crop is valued at $763.5 million by NASS, a $3 million increase over 2006 but almost $90 million more than 2005.

Washington value increased the most in real dollars from 2006 to 2007, despite a slight decrease in average price. Growers there averaged $6/cwt., down 25 cents from 2006. The total value of potato production in Washington increased almost $52 million, to $613.8 million. That’s an increase of about $79 million from 2005, according to NASS.

Wisconsin was third in the total value of production, although it decreased almost $20 million from 2006. The total for 2007 was almost $210 million. The average price per cwt. also dropped, from $7.80 in 2006 to $7.45 in 2007.

Production in Colorado was valued at $182 million, with average prices around $8.25/cwt. The price was up 30 cents over 2006, but total value was down about $9 million from 2006 and almost $32 million from 2005.

California was ranked fifth in terms of total production value in 2007 at $169.7 million, according to NASS. That’s down from $187.1 million in 2006 and $202.4 million in 2005. Average price per cwt. has declined over those years as well. In 2005, growers averaged $13.50/cwt., in 2006 they averaged $12.50/cwt. and in 2007 they received $11.10/cwt.

North Dakota’s total production value decreased almost $10 million, to $156.2 million in 2007. That figure is still $16.8 million more than 2005. The average price per cwt. has been fairly steady at $6.60 in 2007, 5 cents higher than 2006 but 20 cents lower than 2005.

Potatoes out of Oregon had a higher price in 2007, and total production value increased as well. Growers received $7.25/cwt. in 2007, up from $6.45/cwt. in 2006 and $5.85/cwt. in 2005. Total value of production jumped to $146.7 million in 2007, an increase of $27 million over 2006 and almost $18 million higher than 2005.

Minnesota production has steadily been increasing in value, despite a fairly stable price. Growers received $6.40/cwt. on average last season; 35 cents higher than 2005 but 5 cents lower than 2005. The total production value increased to $132.4 million, up from $125.5 million in 2006 and $113.7 million in 2005.

Maine barely edged out Michigan in total production value in 2007 – its value of $124 million was $500,000 more than Michigan’s. However, Maine’s value decreased from $140 million in 2006 compared to Michigan’s increase from $118.5 million that year.


McCain’s Early Risers
PICTURE McCain Foods introduced a new breakfast item for its foodservice customers. McCain Early Risers are designed to be a convenient handheld breakfast that can capitalize on increased “grab and go” trend at consumer convenience stops. The product offers operators a quick and easy way to provide customers with a hot breakfast.

The Early Risers are a combination of potato, eggs, bacon and cheese wrapped in a corn flake coating. The items can be baked or fried and contain no trans fats. Each case comes packaged with serving sleeves, and McCain Foods offers operators full-color point-of-sale materials to drive sales.