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.
This year, it 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 last week 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.”
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.
Without a major reversal of demand, 1 billion pounds of Washington potatoes, 10% of last year’s crop, could still be piled up in warehouses later this summer as the new crop starts to be harvested.
The fallout already has prompted one major processor, McCain Foods, to temporarily suspend a $300 million expansion of a plant in Othello, Wash.
Idaho dominates the production of fresh market potatoes, a grocery-store staple that continues to sell amid the pandemic as consumers grab them by the bag to bake, boil and fry back home.
Washington farmers in the Columbia Basin focus on producing for the frozen market. They sow specialized varieties that yield potatoes often shaped like a pop can, so there is less waste when rectangle fries are cut out of them. They also favor dense high-starch strains that when cooked create fluffy interior textures savored by fry aficionados.
These farmers have honed their skills in irrigated desert soils — enriched by volcanic ash — that produce the nation’s best yields, some 30 tons per acre.