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North Florida Growers Battle Cold, Drought, Flood

Potato growers in northeast Florida’s Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties have battled an unholy triumvirate of weather issues this winter and spring. First, cold weather killed back plants that were just out of the ground. Then, severe drought in the area meant lots of irrigation to keep crops alive. And then, just as growers were harvesting – two to three weeks late because of the early season cold weather – unseasonable flooding left potato fields under water.

Butch Calhoun, director of government affairs for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said growers were in the peak of harvest when the rains hit.

“They were anywhere from just getting started to half done,” he said. “Depending on the area, the least amount of rain that I heard anyone received was 12 inches, and some of them got close to 30 inches. That was something none of them had ever had before. As I talked to people, they told me that 9 inches of rain was the most they’d ever had during a harvest in a week’s time before. So they had twice to three times as much rain as they’d ever experienced.”

Calhoun said the late cold weather hurt growers more than the subsequent drought because most of the growers irrigate.

“The cold set back the harvest a couple of weeks, and some growers actually got burned back,” he said. “I’m speculating, but that probably delayed the harvest by two weeks.”

Without that delay, many growers would have been nearly done harvesting before the flooding rains hit.
Calhoun said that, prior to the rain, the season looked like it was going to be slightly better than average.

“The yield was good and the price was fair.”

That all changed when the heavens opened. Of course, yield and quality went down. In addition, the rain caused harvest expenses to go up because it changed what growers had to do.

“Some growers had to rent four-wheel-drive tractors to pull the carts by the harvester, when normally they just have a truck going beside the harvester,” Calhoun said. “They burned more fuel as a result. And some growers couldn’t harvest at all. I heard growers say everything from 15 percent to 75 percent loss, and it depended on whether you had chip potatoes or table stock. Some growers have both, and some have just one.”

One grower Calhoun talked to was a chipper whose yield was down because he couldn’t harvest everything, but quality wasn’t a concern for him.

“The day he dug them, they went to the chip plant,” he said. “They were chipped the next day, so they weren’t worried about the shelf life.”

Growers with table stock, however, had a harder time. Danny Johns, owner of Blue Sky Farms, graded his potatoes three times instead of the normal once.

“We had 20.2 inches of rain in a 10-day period, with some heavy downpours,” he said. “Even so, I consider us lucky. Down in Bunnell, the growers got so much rain they didn’t have a chance. The weatherman called this a 100-year storm.”

When those rains occurred, Johns said, he had about a third of his crop out of the ground. Everything he harvested after that was a challenge.

“The problem is that when you harvest them, they can look real good the first day but then, two days later, they’ll have bad potatoes in them,” he said. “We do a lot of small packs, so we wanted to make sure we had a good product for the consumer.”

Besides the production he lost out of the field – Johns left un-harvested about 50 acres out of the 600 he had planted – he incurred a lot of extra cost after he got them harvested.

“We graded them, put them in totes coming out of the field and put them in the cooler,” he said. “Then we pulled them out two days later, graded them again and put them back in totes in the cooler. Then we’d pull them out after another two days, regrade them and put them in the small pack bags. So our grading costs were three times as much as they are normally.”

The worst part of it all, Johns said, was that all of this came on top of the most expensive crop he’s ever put into the ground.

“Our seed prices were way up this year,” he said. “All our input costs were way up there, too. Everyone, such as the fertilizer companies, had increased costs last year and they had to pass those on, so we had to absorb them. So, we were already in a little riskier situation than we’re accustomed to. Plus, we’ve had extra wear and tear on manpower and equipment as a result of all of it. This has the potential to be the worst year I’ve ever had, although we’re still trying to feel our way through everything. It’s been one of those years for the record books.”

With production down, growers hoped the price might go up to compensate just a little. However, because the potato is a nationally grown crop, that didn’t happen.

“Red River Valley had a big crop of reds, so that really put a lid on our red deal,” Johns said. “And California filled in the void. So we didn’t realize any uptick in price that would help us.”

The ultimate outcome of this for the growers has yet to be determined.

“Most growers were hurt, and depending on the timing of their planting and harvest, some were hurt worse than others,” said Chad Hutchinson, a University of Florida professor specializing in potato research. “I haven’t heard of anyone going out of business, but I think some will have to carry debt into next year, which isn’t uncommon in farming – but it also isn’t something you like to see.”

As of late June, growers hadn’t yet received any federal assistance. The problem, Calhoun said, wasn’t from a lack of concern on the part of state officials, but rather the process that must be followed to receive help.

“The commissioner of agriculture has to request that the governor make a declaration,” Calhoun said. “That happened on June 11. The governor sent a letter to the secretary of agriculture on June 19. But the feds haven’t adopted all the rules and regulations, so we still don’t know what the outcome will be.”

In the long term, however, Florida potato growers have reason to be optimistic.

“The demand for potatoes from Florida is on the rise for a number of reasons,” Hutchinson said. “Market potential is good for next year, and if weather conditions are normal, there’s good potential for farmers to make back any losses they incurred this year.”

Originally posted Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2009

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