“The market is slow to come to California,” but all signs indicate customers “will be buying here” shortly, Dennis Johnston, a partner in Johnston Farms in Edison, CA, said May 13 as the shipping season for California red, yellow and white new potatoes got under way.
The russet harvest in California had not yet started.
Dennis JohnstonTwo factors accounted for the slow markets at the beginning of the season, according to Johnston and other growers: Other growing areas are shipping storage potatoes later than usual, and the California harvest is starting earlier than normal.
Top Brass Marketing Inc. in Bakersfield, CA, exclusive marketing agent for Vignolo Farms in Shafter, CA, started harvesting potatoes in the Bakersfield area April 28 this year, which is “really earlier than ever,” Brett Dixon, president of Top Brass, told The Produce News May 13.
Vignolo grows “a lot of red and yellow potatoes and just a few whites,” as well as specialty varieties such as red, yellow and purple fingerlings, but not russets.
“We also do organics” on everything but the whites, he said.
With conventional potatoes, the market “started off a little difficult, especially on the yellows,” Dixon continued. “There are too many late storage yellows with cheap prices, and questionable quality, really.” What is left in storage is not of a quality that people would normally want, but “they are out there with cheap prices, and that is affecting the market.”
California producers are also growing more of the non-russet varieties this year, particularly the reds and yellows, he said. That could also be a factor in the current market, but “I don’t think it would be an issue if we didn’t have the storage crop to deal with in addition to that.”
Last year was a good season for California new potato growers, so this year “it seems like there was more acreage planted, in general, out here, especially in yellow potatoes,” Dixon said. That increase “seems to be having its effect especially early on.” But once growers from elsewhere finish with their storage products, markets should strengthen.
“We are probably at the bottom now,” Dixon said. “We will probably see a rise in prices here in another three or four weeks.”
Many customers are “anxious and ready for the California fresh local potatoes,” he added.
Top Brass expects to continue shipping into the beginning of August.
Favorable growing conditions have produced a clean, high-quality crop, Dixon said. “I think the quality will eventually win back the customers that are pulling storage supplies of lesser quality.” More business should be “coming this way” by the end of May, and prices should increase toward the second week of June, he said.
Lehr Bros. Inc. in Edison, CA, which grows and ships potatoes under the “Big L” label, has been shipping potatoes out of the California desert since March and started in the Bakersfield area May 5, according to Tom Drulias, proprietor of T.D. Produce Sales in Bakersfield, which handles sales for Lehr Bros.
“Quality out of Big L and out of the area this year has been very good” and yields have been strong, he said. “The market is not starting out as strong as it was last year, but we do look for the market to pick up on the reds and yellows as the storage crops finish up.”
Storage deals are running later than usual, “and the volume is coming on faster out of Kern County” than usual, he said.
Lehr Bros.’ potato acreage is “up a little bit,” particularly in reds and Norkotah russets, compared to last year, Drulias said. The company also grows white and yellow varieties, but white potato production has declined over the years “to the point where now the red acreage and the yellow acreage out of Kern County exceeds the white acreage for the spring deal.”
“We stated packing last Monday [May 5],” said Johnston. “Quality is very nice. Tonnage is a little light, lighter than we expected,” for the early harvest, “but that will change as time goes on here, and it will be a normal crop, I think.”
Johnston Farms is currently harvesting reds and yellows, and Johnston expects to start russets around the first of June. The company expected to continue shipping into July.
“With slight increases in red and yellow acreage, Johnston Farms is now one-third red, one-third gold and one-third russet,” he said.
The new potatoes offered by Johnston Farms and other California growers “are definitely better to eat, they taste better, they are fresher,” Johnston said. But even so, when storage potatoes are in the market at cheap prices and the price differential is considerable, many buyers will buy on price.
California new potatoes are marketed in “all major markets” throughout the United States and into Canada, according to Ken Gilliland, director of international trade and transportation for Western Growers Association in Irvine, CA. Transportation is “a combination of rail and truck, but there is a large reliance on rail car shipments” because of the lower cost “compared to over the highway.”
California growers, who harvest new potatoes each season earlier than nearly every other growing area, have a marketing window “as the buyers start looking for the new vs. the storage,” Gilliland said.