Potatoes off to a slow start
Idaho Falls— Widespread rain across Idaho left water standing in fields and conditions too wet for planting throughout the month of April.
Between storms farmer and IFBF President Bryan Searle got some planting in. He grows potatoes, barley and wheat and says his operation in Bonneville and north Bingham County are behind almost two weeks.
“We’re planting in the areas that aren’t too wet. What we’re worried about right now are the soil temperatures. The seeds are wet and cold and even though they're going into the ground, they’re going in cold and that presents potential problems if it doesn't warm up.”
The last few weeks Idaho farmers have averaged just 3-4 days of fieldwork and most of Idaho is behind schedule.
“We’re behind from last year by a week on our north properties at least 10 days. I checked the records, a lot of guys planted the 10th of April last year, so we’re behind,” said Searle.
In the Blackfoot, Shelly and Idaho Falls area there are farm operations that haven’t moved equipment because of cold soil temperatures and mud.
“Last year we had the crop planted, so its delayed. That could make us a more susceptible disease later but that happens when you plant late,” said Searle.
March was one of the wettest months on record capping off a year in which precipitation levels approached 150-percent of normal in Southeast Idaho and well above normal throughout the state, according to data released by NASS.
The big question in the potato world is how many acres will go into spud production and will the spuds reach the break even point.
“How many potatoes are going in? I don't know,” said Searle. “There are financial issues, some farmers are not getting financed, others are shopping for a bank and some are rolling with the dice. I don't know how many acres will be planted statewide, my projection is that acres will be down from last year because its tough getting loans, but that's what I see in my world.”
As for prices, Searle can only guess. “It’s hard to project the market at this point, all I know is that we’re late but we do know we’ll have plenty of water,” he said.
Since 2000, the average US market price for fresh potatoes ranged from a low of $7.34 per hundredweight for the 2003 crop to a high of $14.44 for the 2008 crop, according to the US Department of Agriculture
Following the potato market cycle of one to two years of high prices, they usually are followed by a couple of years of low prices. For those that subscribe to that theory, potatoes should see higher prices in the 2016-17. Ryan Larsen, a market extension specialist out of Utah State University has studied the cycle and presented a paper at the University of Idaho's 2017 Agriculture Outlook conference.
He said the USDA baseline forecast is for $6 per hundredweight. He quoted another source that gave a single moving average of $6.50 to $6.60 per hundredweight, while the third — which was more risky — ranged from $7 to $8. “If you’re looking for a bright spot,” Larsen said, “potatoes at least has a chance of breaking even.”
“From American Falls to Caldwell those potato growers had a good year last year. They had high contracts and great yields and they had overages, so those guys shipped to the upper valley the last few years and flooded our market. Eastern Idaho is struggling, we’ll be late again and I expect acres to be off, but if we can get to break even, that’s good,” said Searle
Back to farming, many upper Valley areas in Southeast Idaho were still covered in snow at the end of March and there were 3 days of valley snow in April. Mountain sno-tell sites were still picking up snow throughout April.
The USDA reports that potatoes are behind with just over 10 percent planted. Sugarbeets are 12 percent, same as the five-year average. And onions are at 9 percent, quite a bit behind last year, when farmers had 33 percent planted.
Through it all Bryan Searle is optimistic about the coming year.
“We’re rolling today, planting spuds in our North fields and the spud planter is moving. There are areas where they are not, it's raining at my house but dry 25 miles north, the soil from Blackfoot north is ready to go,” Searle said.