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Spuds Up

September 17, 1997|RUSS PARSONS

Potatoes seem the very image of starchy, stolid stability. Unless you're buying and selling them. Prices for this fall's potato harvest are twice what they were at this time last year.

"This industry is prone to going through cycles," says Mel Anderson, president of the Idaho Potato Commission, a group that produces roughly one-third of the potatoes grown in the United States. "We had record high prices two years ago and record low prices last year. Hopefully, this year will be somewhere in between."

The Idaho harvest won't begin in earnest until next week, but if early returns are an indication, this will be another flush year for growers. The wholesale price of russet potatoes was 20 to 25 cents a pound this week, almost exactly the price at this point in the 1994-95 season.

The reasons for the smaller pickings involve nature and economics. In the first place, last year's yield per acre was a record high because of extremely good growing conditions. This year, while there have been no climatic disasters, things haven't been quite so rosy.

Then there's the money issue. "Just Say No" may have mixed effectiveness in other fields, but when it's bankers talking to farmers, it carries a lot of weight. And after two years of expanding acreage and shrinking prices, banks may have been a little more reluctant to front growers a lot of money for new plantings.

In fact, Idaho acreage this year is down 6% from last year, and the actual harvest is down almost 7% because of the lower yield. The national harvest is expected to be more than 11% lower than last year's.

In Washington, the second-leading fall potato producer, harvest started in July and will run through October, so growers have already been cashing in on the improved market.

But the higher prices don't seem much of a surprise to Sam Thornton, director of research and grower relations for the Washington State Potato Commission. "After a year like last year, there's only one way to go, and that's up."


Carolyn Olney of the Southland Farmers Market Assn. reports that Jim and Maria Pudwill of Pudwill Farms in Nipomo are selling Heritage raspberries now and will have blackberries in three or four weeks. They are at the Santa Monica market Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; Thousand Oaks on Thursday; Santa Barbara and Pasadena on Saturday; and Hollywood and Beverly Hills on Sunday.

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