How Potato Farmers are Responding to Covid-19

  • May 12, 2020

Why are potato growers turning dirt in fields with potato plants still in the ground? The same reason other farms are struggling: the closure of restaurants during Covid-19 creates a significantly smaller market.

Most Americans probably don’t realize just how much food is consumed at restaurants. Now that restaurants are temporarily closed, foods like potatoes have no place to go.

According to Melissa Bedlington, seed potato grower with Dick Bedlington Farms in Whatcom County, 1 billion potatoes in Washington state will be left unused by restaurants this year. This is because most potatoes grown in the Columbia Basin of Eastern Washington are specifically produced for restaurants.

In her conversation with Dillon Honcoop on the Save Family Farming radio show, she explains how geneticists and farmers have worked together to create the perfect potato for processing. With Covid-19 causing closures of restaurants, exports to Asia and around the country have come to a quick halt. 

So what will happen to these unused potatoes?

According to Bedlington, the potatoes can be kept in storage for a period of time. However, just like all foods, they are perishable.

While some potato leftovers are going to feed cattle across the state, other businesses are choosing to donate the crop to food banks and local citizens. “Most food banks can handle one to two thousand potatoes, but not millions,” says Bedlington. Limited shelf life means food banks and potato-lovers alike can pick up free potatoes across the state at local donation areas.

The Washington Potato Commission has been creating donation zones, mostly in Easten Washington. Potatoes have been washed and packaged by producers into 15 lb bags. 

Despite these efforts, some hundreds of potatoes are still being left to waste, and planting season has started. So the question arises: how much should potato growers plant for next year?

Bedlington says most seed potato farms in Whatcom County make contracts for one, if not two, years in advance, so despite the future being unclear, sales are on the horizon. The seed potatoes planted now will be sold in the fall.

For farmers in Eastern Washington growing the specialized Russet potatoes bred especially for French fry processing, the market is uncertain with the number of restaurants closed. However, there is hope that some of the product may be sent to other processors since Washington is only a small part of the market for most potato growers.

Even with hopes for a market renewal in the fall, this doesn’t mean that sales will immediately return to normal. Confirmed orders are most likely to be smaller this year, says Bedlington, and some businesses may not survive. 

This is one of the reasons why Bedlington Farms made it a goal to grow up to 40 varieties of potatoes. In case one market fails, there is still a back up.

Their potatoes are sold all over the country with varieties including the classic Russet, brown-yellow, and even purple. Each variety makes for a unique purpose from everything to recipe preferences to French fries.

With different varieties, according to Bedlington, each plant has specific needs. For example, smaller varieties like fingerlings need smaller planters and larger varieties like Russet need larger harvesters. In addition, the times for growth vary from 80 to 120 days depending on desired size and plant specifications.

This past week, despite the marketing uncertainties, Bedlington Farms and others began planting for the coming season. Bedlington Farms still planted their Russets, hoping, like other potato growers across Washington, that the market will be back up to speed soon. Listen to the whole story here or in the recording below.

To donate to the cause of providing potatoes for the hungry, check out the GoFundMe page.