COVID-19 forces WI potato and vegetable growers to navigate uncharted waters

Dan Hansen
While this year’s potato crop is off to a good start, success will be determined to a large extent by the weather at fall harvest time.

ANTIGO – The shutdown of the nation’s foodservice industry earlier this year continues to have a significant impact on virtually all segments of Wisconsin’s diverse agricultural economy – including the state’s potato and vegetable growers.

“That shutdown has forced many of our growers to navigate uncharted waters as they work through this changing world,” said Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA).  

The immediate result was contract volume reductions for the potato growers who raise processing potatoes for McCain Foods that are turned into French fries, hash browns, tater tots, etc. “Most of those growers were cut by 25% compared to their 2019 volumes,” Houlihan explained.

WPGVA, established in 1948 and based in Antigo, represents the interests of about 110 potato and vegetable farms, 190 associate members (suppliers to the industry), and about 140 auxiliary members, working together to provide the best Wisconsin potatoes and vegetables for consumers. 

“We also consider ourselves to be educators and potato and vegetable enthusiasts and ambassadors,” stressed Houiilhan. “Utilizing the traveling Spudmobile, we teach school children how potatoes are grown, teach parents about nutrition and healthy eating throughout the Midwest.”

Wisconsin is the third largest potato producing state with an average of 65,000 acres and 25-28 million cwt. of production. “We are also a major producer of vegetables, with top-five rankings nationally in the production of green beans, carrots, sweet corn, peas, cucumbers, beets and cabbage. We're also a top-ten producer of onions,” he said.

Market diversity

Some of the market that was lost earlier in the year is now returning, according to Houlihan. “McCain recently has contacted its growers in search of additional potatoes,” he said.

He also noted that particular sector of the Wisconsin potato industry represents only about 20% of the state’s overall production. “We are primarily a fresh stock (41%) and chip stock (28%) potato state (the remaining 11% is in certified seed potato production).  All the other sectors of the Wisconsin potato industry are doing well in spite of COVID.”

Wisconsin also grows the most varieties of any potato producing state.

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“About 45% of the state's production goes to grocery stores and those can be a number of different varieties — Russet, white, red,” Houlihan said. “We’re also growing a significant amount of yellow-skin potatoes, and there’s a fairly large specialty potato market which could be fingerlings or purples or small golf-ball sized potatoes grown by the Little Potato Company.” 

Over the last 20 years, consumption of canned and frozen vegetables has been slowly declining. “But with the advent of the coronavirus, people were stocking up with cans and all of a sudden we saw canned veggies increase in consumption," said Houlihan. 

"We're hoping that this increase in vegetable and potato purchases at the grocery story is something that carries over, even after the coronavirus is under control. We feel like more and more people are starting to enjoy the benefits of cooking at home and eating healthy vegetables.”

School children learn how potatoes are grown and about the health benefits of potatoes in the WPVGA traveling Spudmobile.

Spring planting success

While millions of people were working remotely, Houlihan says potato and vegetable growers, just like other farmers, were out in the field going about their essential duties of feeding the world. 

“Seed potatoes were still being shipped in March and Wisconsin growers hit the fields in April and continued to plant through the month of May,” he recalled. “The majority of the crop went into the ground in favorable conditions, which was a change from the previous two years when April and May were wet and cold,” he said.

“Right now the crop looks to be in great shape in Wisconsin, but our growers know all-too-well that you can't count your potatoes until they are dug,” Houlihan said. “We've had a couple of very challenging harvest seasons the last two falls, and growers have learned that September and October weather can make or break their entire crop.”

A successful growing season, however, could lead to a problem of too many potatoes this fall. “With so many potatoes in the pipeline right now, and those coming from Western states, our real concern is about the prices to Wisconsin growers dropping below the cost of production once we hit the fall,” Houlihan said.

Aware of the high potential for an oversupply of potatoes come fall, some Wisconsin producers have cut back a little on planting.

Other initiatives continue

WPVGA members continue working to protect drinking water and public health, with research related to reducing nitrogen use on potatoes. Growers are also continuing to cooperate with Discovery Farms on a phosphorus reduction project in Antigo and a nitrate reduction project in central Wisconsin.

“One valuable industry initiative that we hope to conduct with face-to-face meetings is the upcoming WPVGA Member Development Program,” Houlihan said. “From November of 2020 through March of 2021, the WPVGA will conduct this leadership training program, with one-day sessions, once a month for five months. 

“The program is designed to prepare members of the WPVGA to be future leaders, providing them with the opportunity to learn about and participate in all the various facets of the industry by exposing them to information, resources, activities and people for networking opportunities,” he explained.

“We’ll continue to work closely with our members in helping them navigate this strange new world,” stressed Houlihan. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that farmers, food producers and their suppliers form the backbone of our country. Those involved in agriculture continue to serve on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19.”