COVID-19 Impacting Entire Potato Chain

After a promising start to 2020, hopes for an average, or even a good year have come grinding halt for the Northwest potato industry.

Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington state Potato Commission, said coronavirus has had a deep, long-lasting impact on potatoes, not in the fields, but in the processing facility. He said 90% of what’s grown goes to restaurants and other food services outlets, for fries with your lunch or dinner. But with restaurants closed worldwide, demand for fries and other products has stopped.

“And so, we’re just missing out on a tremendous amount of sales with the closure of restaurants.  We’re just not picking that up in the home meals any more.  We’re still selling a lot of fresh potatoes, we’re still selling a lot of French fries in grocery stores, but it’s not nearly enough to make up for the loss that we’re experiencing in food service.”

And that, Voigt noted, has created a three billion pound backlog of potatoes, that traditionally would be used between now and July 4th. For years, growers and processors knew how many potatoes would be needed for worldwide consumption, based on holidays, previous trends and other factors. But now, it’s anyone guess when a sense of normal will return.

“We’ve rewritten the whole playbook on demand.  Nobody knows what it is anymore,” Voigt said. “There’s been such a fundamental shift, in consumer behavior, so we’re all kind of scratching our heads on trying to figure out how much to plant.  Is this too much, or not enough?”

Voigt added the current crop that’s in the ground has no destination because of the current backlog, noting the industry, once again, will have billions of unneeded potatoes once 2020’s harvest wraps up.

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