Oct 6, 2020
Drought hurting Maine potato growers, but conditions better elsewhere

Aroostook County, Maine experienced one of the driest potato-growing seasons on record this year.

The USDA’s Drought Monitor recognizes a section of northeastern Maine as being in category D3 conditions, or an extreme drought, “with major crop losses and widespread water shortages.” Most of the rest of the county is listed as D2, or severe drought, with crop losses “likely.”

Maine Potato Board Executive Director Don Flannery recently told the Associated Press that some growers could experience yield losses of 30%. Only one-third of potato farms in Maine are irrigated.

While not as widespread as Maine’s potato-growing region, areas of the Columbia Basin in Washington and Oregon also are experiencing moderate or severe drought conditions.

In Idaho, growing and harvesting conditions have been much better.

“Growing and especially harvest conditions in Idaho have been near perfect. Excellent weather. Harvest should be wrapped up for the most part by Oct. 9,” Idaho Potato Commission President and CEO Frank Muir reported to Spudman on Oct. 6. “It’s too early to report on yield but overall quality appears to be excellent. We are very encouraged by this crop. Retail demand continues strong and foodservice is slowly returning.”

Colorado Potato Administrative Committee Executive Director Jim Ehrlich also said things are progressing well for growers in his state.

“We are just about wrapped up with harvest. The crop has turned out really well,” Ehrlich said. “The reports I have received indicate that yields are above average with excellent quality. The size profile is average for our area. We will have a bigger crop than in 2019 but it should be manageable.

“The news is all positive for the market and the consumer.”

RELATED: Russets dominate Colorado acreage in 2020

Wet weather during harvest led to widespread losses in the Red River Valley in 2019. This year, the weather was better, but short of ideal, mostly due to heat, said Northern Plains Potato Association President Donavon Johnson.

“Harvest is generally progressing well. Some growers in the northern areas are completed with harvest and other growers around the Grand Forks area (generally) are waiting for rain due to the hard lumps in the fields which are causing nicks on potatoes,” Johnson reported. “Quality is generally OK, but there are some growth cracks due to heat. Sizing is smaller than desired.

“Generally speaking, the entire potato production in our area will be less than hoped for but with the ability to get the crop out of the ground this year compared to last year, it will be an average yield year. No issues with frost or wetness thus far.”

Harvest conditions in Wisconsin have been very good, said Tamas Houlihan of the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association, adding the quality of the crop is excellent, albeit that yields will likely be in the normal range.

“I’m hearing that the crop is not a bin-buster, with average yields, but quality is outstanding,” Houlihan said. “We have a good percentage of U.S. #1s, high-specific gravities on our processing potatoes and a low percentage of rot/defects. We did get some cold temperatures over this last weekend (Oct. 2-4), but not to the point of having any frost damage. The majority of the crop was already out of the ground, and the potatoes still underground were not damaged by the few overnight hours that temperatures dipped to 28-30 degrees.”

Pennsylvania Co-Operative Potato Growers Executive Director Nathan Tallman reported that harvest have been dry, which isn’t all bad, but the lack of moisture apparently has led to light yields.

“Quality has been good, yields have been below average due to hot dry summer in most areas. Growers have been happy for a dry September to harvest, but more moisture would have been helpful for digging,” Tallman said. “Chip demand has been good, although there seems to be some concern over the light yields we are seeing in Pennsylvania and New York chip potatoes. Table potato demand has been stronger with our fresh-cut processed potato demand is down, year over year.”

— Zeke Jennings, managing editor

Top photo: 2020 Idaho russets photographed by Travis Blacker, Idaho Potato Commission.

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