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Bad Fall Weather Leaves U.S. Potato Farmers With Their Smallest Crop In Years

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

An early frost in October sent farmers scrambling to get their crops out of the ground early. Potato farmers were hit especially hard. Boise State Public Radio's Sasa Woodruff reports on the potential fallout from what could be the smallest U.S. potato crop in nearly a decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF OIL SIZZLING)

SASA WOODRUFF, BYLINE: Burgers on the side is the slogan for the Boise Fry Company in downtown Boise.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And then I'll add small fries and a drink. And I'll do russet regular.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible).

WOODRUFF: Customers can order from six different types of potatoes for their fries. The restaurant's CEO, Brad Walker, says they take potatoes seriously.

BRAD WALKER: For french fries, you want the biggest potato you possibly can.

WOODRUFF: The perfect french fry potato is bulky enough to be cut into a fry, long enough to dip multiple times into ketchup or fry sauce. This means the potatoes need to stay in the ground as long as possible. When the cold snap hit in October, Frank Muir, president of the Idaho Potato Commission, says Idaho farmers hadn't harvested about 15% of their acres. Many were probably the nice, bulky spuds.

FRANK MUIR: Between 3% percent and 30% were damaged. There were some fields that were a total loss and completely plowed back under.

WOODRUFF: When the U.S. Department of Agriculture's potato numbers came out, news headlines started predicting a french fry famine. Early estimates say they were 6% fewer pounds of potatoes this year over last year. And while farmers in the No. 1 potato state, Idaho, were hurt, farmers in the No. 5 state, North Dakota, lost the most with 20% fewer acres harvested over last year. Steve Nicholson, an analyst at Rabo AgriFinance in St. Louis, says the losses mean the supply chain has to be reconfigured. Suppliers will have to go farther afield to satisfy demand.

STEVE NICHOLSON: First of all, you have higher transportation costs to bring them to your plant because you're reaching farther away. And second of all, you're paying a higher price because there is a shortfall in the potato supply that you need.

WOODRUFF: But a french fry shortage - probably not. Producers that contract with big fast food chains have negotiated prices and volumes a year ago.

NICHOLSON: Mcdonald's, you know, Wendy's, Burger King - you know, that french fry's important. They're going to make sure they have supply.

WOODRUFF: And Muir of the Idaho Potato Commission says farmers here still harvested about 13 billion pounds, so they could benefit from the overall shortage.

MUIR: It is a good opportunity for them to price up just a little bit to make sure, despite the devastation of some of those losses, that they have a profitable year this year.

WOODRUFF: The one place consumers may see a price hike - the retail grocery store.

NICHOLSON: You can see in the baked potatoes and the mashed potatoes and the french fries in the frozen food case and the tater tots and the hash browns is where you're going to see that.

WOODRUFF: And back at the Boise Fry Company, Walker says he hopes he can move around costs so customers and employees won't see a change if prices do go up. And they'll adapt to dealing with smaller potatoes.

WALKER: The size of the potato determines the cut of potato. So if you have a pretty small potato, we'll do those curly.

WOODRUFF: So your fries aren't in danger, but you may be seeing more matchstick fries on the menu this coming year.

For NPR News, I'm Sasa Woodruff in Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.