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‘It’s shaping up to be a good year’ for Washington potatoes

Last winter’s heavy snowfall and a wet 2017 spring put Washington potato growers in the fields later than the 2016 season, but reports from the Washington State Potato Commission indicate a good crop is coming in.

Chris Voigt, executive director of the Moses Lake, WA-headquartered organization, told The Produce News on July 25 all signs are positive.

“We planted later than the past couple of years due to a wetter spring, but most folks are saying that the last two years were exceptions and this year was a shift back to normal,” Voigt said.WSPCopenerHarvest is under way for Northwest potatoes, with Washington looking at 25,000 acres planted for the fresh market. Washington State Potato Commission Executive Director Chris Voigt said the state had good growing conditions, and he noted it looks like a good year. Photo courtesy of Washington State Potato Commission

“The growing season has been good,” he continued, “It got off to a slow start due to the cooler soil temperatures but is really looking good. Once the soils warmed up, the crop took off and it’s been great conditions since. There have been a few hot days but not enough to cause any quality concerns.”

All in all, Voigt said, “It’s shaping up to be a really good year.”

Harvest is under way now, he said. “We started digging some early spuds a few weeks ago. Typically we’ll start with some early chipping varieties, followed by some colored varieties out of the Yakima Valley, then some early processing potatoes, then our Norkotahs for the fresh russet market.”

It is estimated Washington has “roughly 25,000 acres planted for the fresh market,” and Voigt said, “The amount of fresh acres has been generally flat for the past five years, but as the growth in exports of processed potatoes continues to rise, we are seeing pressure put on our industry to reduce our fresh acres and shift toward more processing.”

He explained, “About 70 percent of what we grow ends up in export markets, but mostly as processed products. Our primary markets for tablestock potatoes are Canada, Mexico and Taiwan. And we are seeing good growth in fresh chip stock potatoes going overseas too — Japan and South Korea have been good markets for fresh chip stock.”

The most widely grown potato varieties in Washington are Burbank, Ranger, Umatilla, Norkotah, Chieftain and Shepody, with several other varieties grown in smaller quantities. Voigt said the Russet Burbank is the predominant variety, “almost all exclusively for processing.”

He added, “The fresh variety most desired by our customers is the Russet Norkotah, which has a beautiful shape and tastes great.”

The Chieftain is the most popular red and is grown in the Skagit Valley. “Our Skagit Valley reds are sought out by buyers who want a cut above the rest in quality and taste,” Voigt said.

Washington sheds ship year-round, and Voigt said, “You can get a great Washington Russet pretty much any time of the year. Our sheds that pack our red, yellow and white potatoes generally finish up in March and April, although one or two may go a little longer depending on the year.”

Like other spud states, Washington has seen consolidation in the industry over the past several years, and Voigt said, “Many of Washington’s shippers were some of the first to join into partnerships or marketing agreements. Customers want you to be a year supplier and have access to every potato product grown under the sun, and it’s hard for any one single entity to provide that. So we saw a various consolidations, marketing agreements and partnerships to meet our customers’ needs.”

As the customers’ needs evolve, so does technology in the fields and sheds. “Virtually every tractor is auto-steer, and most growers now control their irrigation systems with their phones,” Voigt said. “Growers used to spend their whole day driving around to make sure their irrigation systems were running properly, and now they can do it in mere minutes via their phone or computer.

Now, he said, “We are all anxiously awaiting when we’ll have self-driving trucks for harvest. Finding enough truck drivers during the harvest season is the biggest complaint I hear.”

Promotion efforts this year by the commission include a refreshed logo that is free for shippers to use in their individual POS materials and bins. “It works perfectly for customers who want to showcase the locally grown produce of Washington state,” he said.

WSPC is also continuing its production of TV’s “Washington Grown” program “as a way of educating the public about the great produce grown in the state and what it took to grow it and get it to their plate,” Voigt said. The commission will be part of the PMA exhibition this year as well.