Circle irrigation pivot lines fan out in the distance — dark skeletons against the dirty snow and matching sky. Ed Schneider has grown french-fry-making spuds here near Pasco, Wash., for 40 years. But this year America’s fries are on the line.
Recently, he walked out in the snow to see the scope of the problem.
“I mean this is unheard of,” he says. “We usually plant the last couple days of February, and for sure 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 snows not seen for 100 years. 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 30 to 40 percent.
“We need some warm,” Ed says.
Potatoes are on a precise and tight growing schedule. Northwest farmers grow about 70 percent of the potatoes for the nation’s french fries and processed potatoes like hash browns and tots. Plus lot’s more for export to the Pacific Rim and other countries. And processors here will churn through the remainder of last year’s potatoes around July.
To feed the crispy-golden demand, nearly all Northwest potato growers sign a contract with their processors setting out a harvest day. 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,” says Chris Voigt, who heads the Washington State Potato Commission in Moses Lake.
So if potatoes come out 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 — and that dunks these spud farmers in hot oil.
Voigt says there aren’t a lot of extra potatoes from last year to fill in the gap. Many Midwest and Eastern states and even parts of Canada lost lots of potatoes last year thanks to freezing temperatures. So Northwest farmers shipped many of the extra potatoes they had from their last crop to those areas. And now those are gone.