Frosts stunted potato growth in some regions, yielding smaller spuds overall, while snow and rain forced farmers to abandon some crops in the field. (According to the United Potato Growers of Canada, 18 percent of potatoes in Manitoba were left unharvested.) This could lead to shortfalls and rising prices.
Meanwhile, french fry demand continues unabated. According to market research firm NPD Group, fries are the top food ordered at restaurants. In the year ending October 2019, there were 9.4 billion servings of french fries ordered at U.S. restaurants. And according to Amanda Topper, associate director of food service at market research firm Mintel, french fries grew 8 percent as a dish on U.S. menus from the third quarter in 2015 to the third quarter of this year, growth driven primarily by casual dining (offerings up 12 percent) and quick-service restaurants (up 2 percent).
Although frequently featured as golden, crisp accompaniments to the all-American hamburger, fries get haute, too, seen by some gourmands as the perfect duo with champagne. But only about 50 percent of potatoes are consumed fresh, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The rest are processed into potato food products, animal feed and starch for industrial use. A report from food industry research firm Mordor Intelligence indicates that growth in food processing companies is also responsible for driving demand for potatoes.
Adverse growing conditions this year have meant shortfalls for other American crops, too. In November, the USDA reduced its sugar projections by half a million tons, or more than 6 percent, because of a poor sugar beet harvest. This in turn prompted the Commerce Department to raise its import limit on refined sugar from Mexico by 100,000 tons. Crisis averted.
That can’t readily happen with potatoes, says Idaho Potato Commission President Frank Muir. Although China is the world’s largest producer of potatoes, according to Muir the USDA’s “phyto-sanitary laws” prohibit fresh potato imports from there for fear of introducing soil-borne pests or bacteria. The United States is the fifth-largest producer of potatoes after China, Russia, India and Ukraine.
“The USDA is responsible for making sure produce does not come into the U.S. with potential diseases that we do not have here. I’ve never seen a truckload of fresh Canadian potatoes coming into Idaho,” Muir says.
Fresh potatoes are, by and large, a “hold your own” product, without the imports and exports of other commodity crops. Idaho, which produces about a third of American potatoes, harvested about 308,000 acres of potatoes, down about 2,000 acres from last year, according to Muir.
Harvest started in the western part of the state in August and concluded in the eastern part of the state in October. Hit with a significant early frost from Oct. 9 to 11, Idaho had already harvested 85 percent of this year’s crop, the spuds safely in storage and out of harm’s way. The losses are primarily from that remaining 15 percent still in the ground, Muir says.
Muir says he doesn’t anticipate significant shortfalls but predicts that prices will continue to rise through the end of the year.
Blair Richardson, president of Potatoes USA, the nation’s potato marketing organization, says this situation is the culmination of a trend over the past five to 10 years.
“We’ve seen higher demand than supply, but we’ve been able to deal with it because we’ve been importing more potatoes from Canada and the European Union in frozen form,” Richardson says, adding that he expects enough potatoes to meet basic demand but that smaller-production states will have to fill in some of the fresh-potato shortfall from states like Idaho and North Dakota.
“There will be periods that are very tight with supplies,” he says, “but you’re not going to go to McDonald’s and not have french fries.”