This year’s potato harvest is compromised in the U.S. and Canada, which means french fries could get more expensive in both places.
North America’s top potato-producing regions have been unseasonably cold and wet, conditions the tubers can’t tolerate. Idaho, North Dakota and Minnesota, as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Manitoba, experienced enough adverse weather from September into November to significantly affect this year’s potato harvest.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects the lowest yield since 2010, 22.4 million tons, a 6.1% decline since last year.
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% 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% as a dish on U.S. restaurant menus from the third quarter in 2015 to the third quarter of this year, growth driven primarily by casual dining (offerings up 12%) and quick-service restaurants (up 2%).
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 half 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 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%, 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 easily 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.