ELTOPIA, Wash. — For farmer Mike Pink, spring is supposed to be a time of hope, when he can survey a green field of young potato plants and anticipate the bounty to be pulled from the sandy soils of the Columbia Basin.
This year, this is a season when dreams die. Due to an epic potato glut that imploded his market, he has decided to do what was once unthinkable — destroy part of his crop rather than sink more dollars into cultivation.
That grim task unfolded this month as a diesel tractor began discing under 240 acres of Ranger Russets, plants that if left in the ground until summer would likely have yielded more than 14 million pounds of tubers.
“It is just devastating. I have been dragging my feet, hoping something happens, and someone says they can use these,” Pink said. “Once I destroy them, they’re gone. But I just don’t know what else to do.”
Blame the virus
His plight is another ugly impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has dramatically changed where people consume food and upended a powerhouse Washington industry producing frozen french fries for global markets.
Last year, state potato farmers grew some 10 billion pounds of these spuds — the vast majority of which were destined to be cooked up in fast food and other restaurants, primarily in Asia but also in the United States and elsewhere in the world. During the past two months, fast-food sales have dropped sharply, and the cancellation of professional basketball, baseball and all sorts of other events have vastly reduced the number of venues where french fries are served. Even sports bars where customers would have munched on baskets of fries as they watched their favorite teams play are now shuttered.
The fallout already has prompted one major processor, McCain Foods, to temporarily suspend a $300 million expansion of a plant in Othello, Wash., that would have produced french fries from potatoes grown on 11,000 acres, according to Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington Potato Commission.
Without a major reversal of demand, 1 billion pounds of Washington potatoes — 10% of last year’s $845 million crop — could still be piled up in warehouses later this summer as the new crop starts to be harvested. The federal Agriculture Department in April announced a $19 billion coronavirus emergency program that includes provisions to buy farmers’ crops and make them available to those in need. But it is uncertain how much of a dent that federal spending will make in the huge potato surplus, and some could end up being discarded on a scale never seen before in the Pacific Northwest.
“They haven’t been dumped, but I fully expect there will be potatoes dumped. You can’t store a potato forever, said Dale Lathim, executive director of Potato Growers of Washington, an industry group.
The downturn facing Washington potato farmers is part of much broader upheaval in agriculture in the U.S. and Washington state, which in recent years past was worth more than $10 billion annually.
This year, the state dairy industry already has been slammed by lost sales to restaurants, schools and other food services, and prices have dropped by more than 30% since March 1, which is far too low for many producers to be profitable, according to Don McMoran a Washington State University Extension official based in the Skagit Valley.
“There are going to be fewer dairy farmers here and around the nation until we get things sorted out,” said McMoran, who noted three of 29 dairy operators already have announced this spring that they would cease operations.
The state’s beef producers also are in trouble.
Cattle prices have tumbled and markets have become more difficult to find as processors, including Tyson Fresh Meats in Walla Walla County, have temporarily suspended or slowed operations as they battle severe outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers. With processors producing less meat, feedlots are jammed with animals that have yet to go to slaughter.
“It just backs up demand all the way through the system,” said Patti Brumbach, executive director of the Washington Beef Commission.
A worker plows under 240 acres of young potatoes farmed by Mike Pink near Pasco Washington. It was the first time Pink has ever plowed under any food he has grown.