Hot potato: Idaho struggles to unload surplus of spuds

In Shelly, Idaho, every fall since the Great Depression, townsfolk have proudly crowned their Spud Queen and then dug into a feast of the great utilitarian vegetable served mashed, scalloped, fried, and even in chocolate cake.

Over in Driggs, looming as a relic of classic Americana is the Spud Drive-In Theatre with a potato the size of a tractor parked out front of the big screen.

Nowhere does the potato loom larger as an icon than in this state. But despite the inventive ways Idahoans have pioneered to put their starchy cash crop to good use, farmers are now facing a challenge: How to dispose of an unprecedented surplus of spuds that is proving difficult to even give away.

"A glut of potatoes pretty much sums it up," says John Thompson with the Potato Growers of Idaho in Blackfoot.

Too many potatoes - as many as 500 million pounds - have swamped the market and caused prices to fall as flat as a potato flake. On the open market, the tubers are selling for 50 cents per hundred weight - far below the estimated $4 to $5 most farmers say meets production costs.

The russet Burbanks and Norkotahs that come from the state's volcanically enriched soil account for roughly 12 percent of Idaho's economic output. But this year, in a strange twist, a surplus of potatoes is translating into economic famine for some.

To put the glut in perspective, it would fill an indoor hockey rink to the rafters and then some. Even if millions of French-fry-loving teens were to go on a binge, it still isn't likely to change.

"It's tough to see people who have worked all their lives and then to face a tough year like this," says Mr. Thompson.

Producers were considering just throwing away what they couldn't sell to help boost prices, but the wives of many farmers convinced them it would be a waste.

Under the umbrella of a special farmers' cooperative, formed to dispense millions of potatoes - free - Thompson and his colleagues have been on the phone searching for takers. Initially, they contacted food banks and church groups in Idaho. Unfortunately, they're pantries were already full. "Trying to get them interested in more potatoes," Thompson says, "was like taking sand to the beach."

So the group went further afield. Last week, America's Second Harvest in Chicago, which assists food banks across the country, received the first of 300 truckloads, each filled with 42,000 pounds of potatoes. Any organization that sends a truck can take what it wants, and the pickups and Peterbilts have been coming from as far away as Florida and California.

The extra spuds also will be used as livestock feed and dumped back in the soil as fertilizer. Thompson is in Washington this week as well, trying to see if there is anything Congress can do short of mandating that everyone supersize their fries.

While potato gluts are not uncommon, this year's volume may be the worst in history, and, in some respects, mirrors supply problems besetting many North American farmers.

Overall, Idaho grows 28 percent of the US potato crop - about 14 billion pounds a year. Its fecundity in growing tubers stems in part from rich basaltic soils in the Snake River flood plain, plenty of water made available through a dam-irrigation system, and a conducive climate - warm days and cool nights.

Finding a way to make French fries that would be easily cooked in a deep fryer, he became the primary supplier to McDonald's. At least seven French-fry plants now exist in Idaho, each employing about 600 people, says Fred Zerza, spokesman for the J.R. Simplot Co.

Yet others are muscling in on Idaho's domain. Canada, in particular, has become a big supplier of French fries. Their position is being aided by a weak Canadian dollar, allowing growers to sell their tubers in the US cheaply. "The Idaho growers who arranged contracts at $4 to $5 per hundred weight are just keeping their nose above water," says Paul Patterson, a farm economist with the University of Idaho.

The good news is that potatoes rot. Unlike grain, which can be stored for years, fresh potato crops must be planted every year. Consequently, farmers can control, to a certain extent, their own supplies.

So the big question among the small farmers here, other than who might be Shelly's next Miss Potato, is how many russets to plant next year.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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