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California’s new potato crop to peak in June

With a bit less acreage than last year and an expected rain-related supply gap in late May, the new crop of potatoes from Kern County in California should have a relatively strong marketing position even as they hit their peak in June.

The season typically lasts around two months beginning in late April or early May. This year, the first potatoes were dug and shipped the last week of April but several growers didn’t get started in Kern until the second week of May, as their earliest new potatoes until then were grown a couple of hundred miles south in the California desert.

Tom Franconi, partner in Mazzei-Franconi Co. LLC in Edison, CA, and a longtime veteran of the deal, said that acreage is bit short this year and yields have been down a bit in the first fields that were dug. While an average field typically yields 30 field bins to the acre, production the first week of May was around two-thirds of that. Franconi said there also is expected to be a supply gap near the end of May because of rain in late winter that caused a delay in planting. “We are going to have some June acres that would have typically come off in May but we just didn’t get them planted as early as we would have liked.”

However, the end result should be a fairly strong market throughout the Kern County deal. Speaking on May 8, he said the potato market was fairly active, and he was expecting it to remain that way. A survey of conventional potato acreage revealed 1,058 acres of white potatoes, 1,853 acres of reds and 1,834 acres of yellows. The white acreage was down around 80 acres from 2016, while the red acreage was down 265 acres and yellow potatoes were about the same. This year there were no russet potatoes. The russet potato acreage has been in a long decline with only 40 acres devoted to that longtime traditional leader in 2016.

While conventional acreage of regular potatoes is down, Franconi said Kern County is still an excellent area for potatoes, and he believes some specialty potatoes have gained acreage over the last several years. He said it appears that acreage of small potatoes, fingerlings and organic potatoes has increased but there is no acreage count as there is with the three conventional potato varieties.

Tasteful Selections in Arvin, CA, has been operating from Kern County for the past couple of years specializing in baby potatoes. Justin McHenry, plant manager for the Arvin location, confirmed that his company is increasing its acreage and noted that Kern County remains an excellent place to grow potatoes. He was reluctant to reveal too much about the operation but said the Arvin facility pulls potatoes from several different locations. He added anywhere you can grow carrots, you can also grow potatoes. The company’s website touts several different branded products of baby red, white and yellow potatoes in a variety of packs.

Tom Drulias, owner and sales manager of T.D. Produce Sales in Bakersfield, CA, also sees a strong marketing situation for the Kern County potato deal this season. On May 8, he said yellow potatoes currently had the best market followed by whites and reds with regard to 50-pound cartons of conventional potatoes. The yellow market was in the low $20s, while the white potatoes were at about $20 per carton and the reds lagged behind a bit in the high teens. However, Drulias expects the red potato market to get stronger as one Kern County grower with a sizable acreage of reds pulled out of the deal this year, which accounted for most of the drop in acreage. He also said that Florida is shifting production areas, which should lead to a drop-off in red potato volume from that district. He expects to be selling Kern County potatoes until about July 10, which he called a normal end to the deal. At one point, Drulias also expected a supply gap at the end of May because of the earlier rain issues, but he believes he will have supplies throughout the season.

T.D. Sales also sells fingerlings and purple potatoes and Drulias said both currently had very good demand. He agreed with the other potato experts that Kern County remains an excellent place to grow potatoes and there has been a trend toward increased production in the specialty category, which includes organic potatoes.