Potato production and processing predicaments

(Kara Oosterhuis/RealAgriculture)

Lately, a lot of attention has been paid to the beef aspect of your mainstay steak entree, however, we’re now turning our attention to potatoes.

Late last year we saw a shortage of potatoes due to a late, wet harvest. As of May 2020, the situation is quite the opposite, as the repercussions of COVID-19 and restaurant shut-downs have created a surplus of potatoes.

“In our potato industry in Canada, approximately 65 to 70 per cent of our industry goes to french fries, to processing potatoes” says Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of United Potato Growers of Canada. Although retail sales through grocery stores have been good, MacIsaac says “that part of the industry is very much dependent on sit-down restaurants to get the volume of product through.”

Millions of pounds of potatoes — 800 million to be more precise  — are presently in storage. Using last year’s crop is not an issue. Once the potatoes are processed, they freeze well and have good shelf life, and as MacIsaac says, the problem is often a lack of freezer capacity.

“Normally in Canada, we would expect to have about 32 days of fries in storage that industry can use,” he explains, adding the lag is due to a backlog of product and in turn processing companies need to make more room.

To add to the issue,  processing companies are cutting their volumes for the early 2020 crop as they look ahead to tentative re-opening plans. These cuts are causing farmers to reduce their potato acres by as much as 35 per cent depending on the province they reside in, because potato growers have specific and strict crop rotation plans. Compounded by the high cost of production, the high value of potatoes as a crop, and the high value of land, sometimes over $3000 per acre, changing these rotation plans puts potato growers in a difficult spot.

Growers can potentially replace their potato acres with different crops that have different values, but there’s not a lot of time to react to the situation. Furthermore, the seed potato grower may be most affected by the change of plans as they are last to be able to react and seed potatoes can’t be adapted to other parts of the industry in terms of fresh or fried products.

MacIsaac estimates that it will take a year to a year and half for potato consumption to return to normalcy. Like most other commodities affected by COVID-19, the situation is simply beyond potato growers’ control.

Check out the full conversation between Kevin MacIsaac and Shaun Haney below:

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