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Late potato planting could affect french fry supply

Potatoes scoot by on belts at Balcom and Moe, Inc. in Pasco. The potatoes are rinsed, sized and put in bags destined for America’s supermarkets. The potato farmer and packer-shipper has been in business since the 1920s. Anna King for Marketplace

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A bit north of Pasco, Washington, circle irrigation machines fan out in the distance, dark skeletons against the dirty snow and matching sky. Ed Schneider has grown french-fry-making potatoes here for 40 years. But this year, America’s fries are on the line.

“I mean, this is unheard of,” Schneider said. “We usually plant the last couple days of February and, for sure, [are] going by March 1. There’s been some other years when we’re delayed three, four days, but never four weeks.”

The fertile fields in Washington and Oregon are just now drying out from severe winter snow, and potato farmers like Schneider are a month behind in planting. A cool spring — along with this late start — could throw Schneider’s yields off by between 30 and 40 percent. “We need some warm,” he said.

Ed Schneider, 63, has grown potatoes for french fries for 40 years outside of Pasco, Wash. He says in all his years of farming, he’s never seen planting be pushed this late.

American potatoes are grown on a precise and tight schedule. Northwest farmers grow about 70 percent of the potatoes for the nation’s french fries, as well as other processed potato products like hash browns and tater tots, according to Chris Voigt, head of the Washington State Potato Commission. And there’s more demand than usual this year; a freeze in other parts of the country last year drew down Northwest supplies. So, processors need the fresh crop harvested soon. “Come the first of July, the second week in July, they [processors] typically run out of potatoes,” Voigt said.

To feed demand, nearly all Northwest potato growers sign a contract with their processors that sets a hard deadline for the day they have to dig up the yield. Farmers are paid by the ton for whatever comes out of the ground at that time. “It’s scary, because your livelihood is on the line here,” Voigt said.

If potatoes are small because they haven’t had a full growing season, farmers don’t make as much money. This year, the late-planted spuds will likely weigh less, hurting farmers’ income. “A 20 percent loss is, you’re in the red. You know your kids are not going to college this year if you run across something like that,” said Voigt.

Jared Balcom’s family has owned a potato farming and fresh-pack company in Pasco for four generations. “We need to have a really nice spring and a really nice summer, from Mother Nature, to make sure our crop finishes out the way it’s supposed to,” Balcom said. He is currently processing the last of the potatoes held over from the previous harvest but, at this rate, he expects to run out soon.

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