First, international ports closed, limiting shipping options. Then restaurants throughout the United States closed or stayed open only for takeout. Demand for fries and hash browns plummeted.
“It went from probably one of our best years to being one of the worst years in about a two- to three-week window,” said Dan Dyk, a potato farmer in Churchill.
In the Gallatin Valley, potato farmers sell seed to other farmers, who then grow potatoes to be sold to processors. Decreased demand due to shut down restaurants and schools means the processors are storing potatoes in freezers, which have now become full. The commercial potato farmers aren’t buying the potato seed from locals.
The chain effect ultimately means seed potato farmers don’t have places to sell what they normally would. While they’ve come up with some alternatives, it’s not a sustainable business plan as they enter an unknown future.
Tim Venhuizen, president of the Montana Potato Improvement Association and a potato farmer in Manhattan, said farmers generally have a reasonable sense of where markets are heading and how their year will shake out. Now, there’s nothing but uncertainty.
“I’d like to use the word devastating,” Venhuizen said, “because ultimately it probably will end up being.”
Dyk said he’s had 9,400 hundredweights of seed potatoes turned back from the farmers he’d normally be selling to. Priced at $13.50 per hundredweight, it adds up to a $126,900 loss. Multiplied by the roughly more than a dozen seed potato farmers in the Gallatin Valley and it’s an estimated hit of easily more than $1 million.
When the seed potatoes are returned unsold, “that product has become worthless,” Manhattan potato farmer Nick Schutter said. Some farmers have used those as cattle feed, donated them to food banks or just disposed of them.
“It certainly is going to be an economic (hit),” Schutter said. “We’re going to take a haircut, we just don’t know how short yet. … It will be significant. There will be some economic pain.”
The potato seeds sold in the Gallatin Valley are spread to Washington and Oregon in the West and to the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan to the east. About 50% of the potatoes are eventually exported, Dyk said. The reduction in international shipping opportunities, since travel has been limited and ports have closed, also plays a role.
The potato seeds are usually planted in May and then harvested in September and October. No matter what, the pandemic’s timing would have hurt the potato industry.
But since changes occurred while deliveries are still being made, the effect has been magnified. Had these changes happened in the summer, deliveries would have already been made and the effect may not have been felt until the following year.
“The timing was terrible for the seed industry in terms of the pandemic,” Schutter said.
Because of the turbulent times, Dyk said he’s not going to spend as much as he normally would. Instead of upgrading equipment, building sheds or spending on irrigation systems, he’s only going to use money if it’s absolutely necessary. The trickle-down will affect other industries.
Venhuizen said he’s not sure these effects will drive anyone out of business and hopes enough can be done to keep farms operating. But just like everything else, it comes with a caveat.
“One thing that we all can probably agree on is that nobody knows,” he said.