The coronavirus leaves Washington farmers with a big problem: what do you do with a billion pounds of potatoes?


The Facebook review was small and indescribable: “Free potatoes donated by Washington Potato Growers”. But that’s all it took.

The gift on Wednesday caused a massive traffic jam in Ritzville, a small farming town in eastern Washington.

Farmer Marvin Wollman had filled a 40,000-pound semi-trailer with red potatoes packed in 15-pound bags, and they were gone in almost three hours.

The next day, Wollman brought another 40,000 pound load to the town of Moses Lake, and the line of cars spanned two and a half miles.

Wollman was moved by the response, but it was much more than charity.

The coronavirus pandemic has left Washington farmers with at least a billion pounds of potatoes they can’t sell, a new crop growing without buyers, and millions of dollars in debt they have no means of pay.

The state’s fertile Columbia Basin produces nearly a quarter of the U.S.-grown potatoes, 10 billion pounds in 2019. The vast majority – 90% – has been processed into frozen fries and shipped to restaurants, some in the United States, but mainly in Asia.

One billion pounds of surplus potatoes in Washington State

Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, and Washington State representative Mary Dye (R-Pomeroy) load a pickup truck for a free gift for potatoes at the Grant County Fairgrounds in Moses Lake, Washington.

(Karen Ducey / for the Times)

Demand has increased steadily since 2008, said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, and last year, processors in the region received more orders than spuds. This year looked to be the same until the coronavirus closed restaurants and schools around the world.

Wollman’s storage sheds would normally be nearly empty at this time of year, but more than half of its potatoes – “let’s just say millions of pounds” – are still stacked in cavernous buildings, which have to roughly the size of a football field with roofs nearly 30 feet high.

“We are concerned that there are still potatoes in stock when we dig up this year’s crop in September,” said Wollman. “They are good potatoes. We don’t want to throw them away. Right, what do you do with it? “

It turns out that getting rid of a billion pounds of spuds is not easy – or cheap. Washington farmers generally take a year to sell this amount to grocery stores.

“Now we’re trying to move it in a few months,” said Voigt.

This means that each of the 2 million citizens who are expected to use state food banks this year are expected to take 500 pounds.

And to move all these potatoes, you would have to fill at least 20,000 semi-trailers and pay for the fuel.

One billion pounds of surplus potatoes in Washington State

Angie Griffith donates 15-pound bags of potatoes – two bags per family – at a free potato event at Grant County Fairgrounds in Moses Lake, Wash.

(Karen Ducey / for the Times)

The potato commission helped cover the costs of bagging and transporting Wollman’s potatoes – about 7 cents a bag – to see what was possible. Voigt said he also launched a GoFundMe page to raise $ 100,000 to cover the cost of distributing another million pounds of potatoes in the state over the next few weeks.

This would leave more than 999 million pounds in stock.

The concrete floors inside a potato shed are dotted with slits to help cool the air in the soil to keep the spuds at an optimal level of 47 degrees. When stored at this temperature, the potatoes remain intact for almost a year.

One billion pounds of surplus potatoes in Washington State

Weber Family Farms members and directors, Deven Johnson, left, Josh Lyebert and Adam Weber stand on $ 1.1 million ready-to-eat red potatoes in one of the company’s refrigerated storage bays in Quincy, Wash.

(Karen Ducey / for the Times)

But time is running out and farmers are facing a situation similar to that of COVID-19 and the closure of schools and restaurants has caused food distribution lines across the country to twist.

Congress recently approved $ 9.5 billion for the coronavirus food aid program to help farmers with crops they cannot sell. The maximum relief for single product farmers is $ 125,000, but most borrow millions each year to cover their costs until their crop can be sold.

“It’s like you’re drowning in nine feet of water, and we’re taking an inch,” said Representative Kim Schrier, a Washington Democratic first-year student at the House Agriculture Committee. “You are still drowning.” “

Washington potato producers hope US Department of Agriculture will step in and buy their billion dollar glut, then donate potatoes to food banks or even livestock farmers as additional food livestock.

Schrier said she couldn’t answer if it was likely.

“I think we need to broaden this question to find out if the USDA will buy all the tomatoes, apples or carrots that farmers cannot sell across the country because they are all painful,” she said .

“Right in Washington State, we also grow other things, like apples and cherries. We are concerned that a third of our farms will close. It’s a heartbreaking situation. ”

One billion pounds of surplus potatoes in Washington State

Jordan Reed, on the left, and his wife, Mia, third on the left, own JM Farms. Here they pose with children Breanna, 5, Addison, 8, and Owen, 10, in a neighbor’s potato field in Pasco, Wash.

(Karen Ducey / for the Times)

JM Farms – named after its owners husband and wife, Jordan and Mia Reed – faces an additional disadvantage compared to many other potato growers: they only grow Ranger reds.

The elongated shape makes this “perfect long fry” preferred by McDonald’s and other chains, said Jordan. But unlike other varieties – including Umatillas, Clearwaters and Caribous – Rangers cannot be stored.

When the harvest begins at the end of July or August, they go directly from the field to the processing factories, which operate day and night to make frozen fries. Farmers even turn on lights to harvest at night to meet the processor’s schedule.

It’s not a problem, said Jordan. This is what they like.

Jordan had always wanted to be a farmer and he had been learning from his father for years. Mia, the daughter of farm workers, had always admired farmers and their families, the way they shared and worked so close to each other. That’s what drew her to Jordan.

“I have never seen anyone more passionate or more dedicated to farming than he is,” she said.

One billion pounds of surplus potatoes in Washington State

Farmer Jordan Reed shows his children Addison, left, and Owen how to check the soil moisture of a young potato plant in a neighbor’s field in Pasco, Wash.

(Karen Ducey / for the Times)

Still, Jordan said he was shaking a bit in 2017 when he signed his first million dollar loan to cultivate 300 acres of Rangers.

It was the first crop he and Mia had ever grown alone. They were only 33 years old, three children under the age of 7, and a lease on his parents’ old farm near Pasco. They managed to make a living – about $ 60,000, or 6% of their investment after paying off their loan.

“I tell my wife that we are investing millions to make thousands,” said Jordan Reed. “We get a lot of money, but we don’t keep a lot of it. “

Last October, the Reeds obtained contracts from two area potato processors and a loan of $ 1.7 million to cover their expenses. In March, they planted 485 acres of Ranger redheads.

Then the processors called in April and canceled 75% of their contracts. They explained that the demand for fries had disappeared and that their freezers were full.

Suddenly, the reeds were growing 364 acres of potatoes with nowhere to go.

Coronavirus was mentioned when it was planted, said Jordan. “But we understood that people were still going to eat, life was going to continue and we were going to do our part to feed the world. … Now, I could very well be taken out of service for something that I have no control over. “

One billion pounds of surplus potatoes in Washington State

Mike Pink plowed nearly 300 aces of Ranger potatoes on his farm in Eltopia, Washington, after the processors canceled half of his contracts. He was preparing to replant with corn silage, used to feed dairy cows.

(Karen Ducey / for the Times)

He plans to plow under his potatoes to grow something else – unless he does, he knows he would lose at least $ 500,000 because of what he has already spent on spuds.

His lenders understand that it was not his fault, he said, but a 36-year-old man in default on $ 500,000?

“I don’t get over it,” he said.

Just down the road, Mike and Davina Pink made a different choice. Mike plowed nearly 300 Rangers aces on Friday after the processors canceled half of his contracts. He was preparing to replant with corn silage, used to feed dairy cows.

The roses, which have been cultivating for over 30 years, are leaving their 1,300 acres of other varieties in the ground for now.

Mike, the former president of Potatoes USA, is betting he can sell his caribou because they can be dehydrated and easily stored. And he hopes the market will improve by the time its clear waters are ready in late September.

One billion pounds of surplus potatoes in Washington State

Dale Lathim, left, executive director of the Potato Growers of Washington, and farmer Mike Pink watch 300 acres of Ranger potatoes being plowed in a field in
Eltopia, Wash.

(Karen Ducey / for the Times)

The reeds have never grown corn, so they would need to hire special equipment and hire experienced people. They decided to stick with it in the hope that the market would somehow recover before the August harvest.

They did not tell their children that they could lose their farm. “They love it when their father takes them out of farming,” said Mia. “I know there would be tears. “

So Jordan is struggling quietly with a situation he cannot change.

“You don’t sleep at night thinking about it,” he said.

“I was raised to bow my head and do your job, that you control your own destiny … The only thing I can do is keep raising this crop and hope for something to change. “


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