BUHL — While wildfires raged and smoke filled Idaho’s sky, the state’s famous spud crop suffered this summer.
“Smoke does tend to affect potatoes,” said farmer Randy Hardy of Oakley.
The haze over much of the state filtered vital sunlight and somewhat stunted the tubers, said Idaho Potato Commission spokesman Travis Blacker of Idaho Falls.
Early estimates say yields are down from last year’s record crop, Blacker said, confirming what Hardy, a potato commissioner, has seen this year. But it’s too early to tell how far below last year’s record crop today’s crop is.
Most of the state’s 308,000-acre potato crop is harvested; only a few of the large operators are still digging.
“The cold weather held us back a little,” Hardy said Tuesday. “I had expected to be done by now.”
In addition, acreage is down about 5 percent from last year’s 323,000 acres, Blacker said.
Twenty years ago, Idaho grew even more potatoes, he said. But dairies have changed the crop profile, especially in the Magic Valley. Producers are now growing more alfalfa and corn.
“Growers have more options now,” Blacker said.
Idaho produces about 13 billion pounds of potatoes annually, more than any other state. According to the commission, potatoes are “America’s favorite vegetable.” About 94 percent of Idaho producers grow brown-skinned russet potatoes such as Burbank and the early Norkotah, leaving 6 percent for niche varieties such as fingerlings, golds and reds.
Much of the state’s crop was planted late because of wet soils in the spring, Blacker said, which also contributed to lower yields.
But other than a few hiccups in the weather, this year’s potato crop experienced few other problems, said Rod Lake of Burley. Lake grew some 1,500 acres of potatoes this year, some near Burley and some near Buhl.
Both Hardy and Lake say their crops yielded well — the quality of their soil made up for the adverse growing conditions.
Lake, who grew up on a cattle ranch near Blackfoot, started out as a crop consultant. He started small and grew into the potato acreage he farms now. About one-third of his crop goes to the fresh market, while the rest of his crop is sold to be dehydrated.
He’s seen prices fluctuate between $3 and $7 per hundredweight. The $21 per hundredweight he saw in 2008 was an anomaly. With lower yields this year, he hopes this crop will bring a good price.
The potato industry has reduced its risk through better seed quality, better fertilizers and advanced technologies, including remote sensing to identify problems early, Lake said.
Still, he said, “the best tool a farmer can have is a shovel.”