By Marilou Shea
Potatoes are a way of life around the Tri-Cities.
Washington state potato farmers produce 23 percent of all potatoes in the nation, from the russet family where the Russet Burbank, Umatilla and Russet Ranger make up a good deal of the French fries in McDonald’s Happy Meals, to red and yellow varieties.
U.S. farmers provided more than 36 billion pounds of potatoes to people around the world.
It’s no wonder: people love their potatoes.
Can you imagine Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes? A burger without French fries or a breakfast special without hash browns?
The state’s potato industry statistics are staggering, too.
Eighty-seven percent of the state’s potatoes are sold to local companies that produce frozen fries, instant mashed potatoes, crunchy potato chips and more. Every direct job in the potato industry supports an additional 5.1 jobs in the state’s economy.
The industry contributes $1.83 billion of labor income to the state.
And our spud growers generate — wait for it — $7.42 billion (that’s with six zeros at the end) — in total economic output. The industry provides jobs to 35,860 people.
Thanks to Matt Harris at the Potato Commission and Perry Beale of the Washington Department of Agriculture for ensuring these numbers are straight.
It takes farmers like Bart Connors, a third generation grower, to keep the potato industry humming along.
He is a member of Basin Gold, a potato and onion co-op and the chief operating officer of Skone & Connors Produce. A co-op, or co-operative, is formed to create farming efficiencies and is a common scenario in the grower community. Consumers are the beneficiaries. Both entities are based in the Columbia Basin.
Basin Gold is a co-op established in 1994 to enable consumers’ access to a year-round supply of potatoes. The co-op consists of growers who share the marketing, growing and shipping responsibilities of producing a commodity like potatoes and getting it to market (they also produce onions) year-round.
Basin Gold is made up of three members: Skone & Connors of Warden, Blue Sky Management of Royal City and Bud Rich of Hermiston.
Skone & Connors’ co-op combines resources to operate staggered running schedules each month to source to two primary channels: food service channels (restaurants) that comprise 35 percent of sales and retail sectors (like Albertsons, Yoke’s Fresh Market, Winco and Kroger) that make up the other 65 percent of the business.
The co-op also sells its fresh product into some of America’s favorite warehouse stores throughout North America, Mexico and Canada.
What does it take to get potatoes to market? Lots of work. Planting starts in early March through May. Growing season is March through September, depending on the variety. July through October is harvest season. In early September, potatoes are shipped off to storage facilities.
Harvest is finished up in mid-October and just as with other commodities, such as apples, old and new crops of potatoes are rotated out of storage and sent to packing facilities.
On average, potatoes can be in storage for eight to nine months, but every month several thousand tons of potatoes are taken out of storage and shipped to the retail market and consumers’ favorite grocery stores in five-, 10- and 20-pound bags. The most popular ranked in order of quantity grown are russets, reds and then yellows.
Just how big is a potato family business? Basin Gold ships several million 50-pound cases of potatoes and onions per year. That’s a lot of fresh potatoes by any stretch of the imagination, yet its production costs are below market rate.
It’s simple economics: too much supply and not enough demand. The co-op prices potatoes and onions every day. Prices can be set for a day, week, month, or year, depending on the customer.
Connors, however, is more optimistic about the pendulum swinging above the market rate this year.
Fresh acreage and production should decrease in the Northwest, which means more demand and less supply. Acreage is declining because prices have been poor for the last three seasons. Consolidation has been a factor in right-sizing the fresh potato acreage. Connors doesn’t think consumers will see price increases at the retail level in the near term—thank goodness.
Connors also said he doesn’t think the demand for sweet potatoes will match Americans’ demand for russets, despite consumers’ recent love affair with them for their health benefits.
However, he does think it’s part of the reason there’s been an over-supply of potatoes for the past few years.
Consumers are looking for a different product than is being produced or grown.
Why would someone take on the many roles it takes to be a grower of any kind of commodity? Connors laughed and said it’s a great question. It’s a good way to make a living and raise a family, he said. His wife Christan has made a teaching career in the Tri-Cities and the couple have raised their two sons here. Being a grower offers a lot of flexibility, especially in the winter months, he said.
On the downside, there are inherent risks in farming. The weather and market shifts can affect profitability. Since fresh potatoes are like other commodities and traded on the open market, prices can fluctuate, which means less profit per pound for the grower or co-op.
It’s important for consumers to understand potatoes don’t come from grocery stores.
Skone & Connors and many others in the Mid-Columbia run family businesses with real people behind their products, whether they’re harvesting in the field, packing in the warehouse or marketing to food brokers.
The state Potato Commission reports 99 percent of the state’s potato growers are family farms. Connors doesn’t know whether his boys will follow his farming footsteps—one is headed to college and the other may sit for the certified public account exam — but he does know farming potatoes in the Basin has built a good life for them.
And it’s resulted in plenty of tasty potatoes for us.
About Marilou Shea:
Food Love columnist Marilou Shea is the creator of Food Truck Fridays and adjunct faculty at Columbia Basin College’s Food Truck Academy.