Potato industry scrambles to meet surging consumer demand

EVANSVILLE, Ind., March 25 (UPI) — Potato growers and shippers are working overtime to keep American grocery stores stocked with enough spuds to meet skyrocketing consumer demand during the coronavirus pandemic.

With restaurants closing and state governors forcing people to stay home, grocery stores are struggling to keep potatoes in stock, and many suppliers already have exhausted supplies earmarked for retail consumption, said Blair Richardson, CEO of Denver, Colo.-based Potatoes USA, a marketing organization for the industry

“Stores are selling out of potatoes as soon as they get them in,” Richardson said.

Richardson quickly added that United States does not have a potato shortage. While retail demand is surging, demand from the food service sector — restaurants, caterers, cafeterias — is plummeting.

“It’s not that we’re out of potatoes,” said Frank Muir, president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission, based in Boise. “We have enough potatoes to get people through this crisis. It’s just that we don’t have them in the right place.”

Many retailers already burned through their supplies, which tend to be smaller potatoes packaged in 5-, 10- and 15-pound bags, Muir said.

Potatoes used by the food service industry, by contrast, tend to be larger ones that are packed in 50-pound crates.

Suppliers are working to rerout potatoes originally intended for the food service industry to supermarkets and grocery outlets. These larger boxes are beginning to appear in stores across the country.

“Supermarkets are putting these boxes of potatoes out on the floor, or stacking them on pallets and selling them in bulk,” said Randy Hardy, an Idaho potato grower.

Meanwhile, potato packing plants are stepping up production, Hardy said. And farmers plan to plant a greater number this spring.

“I don’t think we’ll run out,” Richardson said. “Farmers are planting as many acres as they can with potatoes right now because of the new demand.”

The majority of America’s brown potatoes are grown in Idaho, while most of the nation’s red potatoes are grown in North Dakota and Minnesota. Southern states like Florida, California and Texas also grow some potatoes that are harvested in the spring.