- The Washington Times
Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The coronavirus emergency has turned things completely upside down for many American farmers.

“Not that long ago, just a couple of months actually, there were stories about how there would be a ‘french fry shortage,’” said Brandy Tucker, marketing director for the Washington State Potato Commission. “Now we have 1 billion pounds of potatoes that don’t have a processing home to go to.”

Consequently, hundreds of farmers in Washington state have warehouses piled high with Russett potatoes that were destined to restaurants, schools and any place else that needs mountains of spuds to meet demand. Unable to sell them to processors already flush with potatoes, farmers are giving their harvest away in bags of 5 to 20 pounds, Ms. Tucker said.

There are truckloads headed to Yuma, Arizona, in addition to food banks throughout the Pacific Northwest, as well as myriad intersections where farmers are distributing free bagfuls by the hundreds to all comers. In Idaho, where most of the potatoes are destined for supermarkets and the fresh food supply rather than theindustrial supply chain, the problem is less acute.

The Washington potato crisis is one example of how the U.S. food supply, an intricate maze in the best of times, has seized up in areas, leading to supply gluts among producers even as shortages appear on the store shelves.

During the last half of April, the Department of Agriculture promised to buy surpluses of all sorts of harvests and a $19 billion relief package for farmers and ranchers unable to sell their products to markets that evaporated almost overnight. But those programs are just starting to kick into gear, meaning farmers face a crisis in the immediate term.

“We’ve got a lot of small farmers, some of whom might be facing a $2 million loan, and they may not make it out of this,” Ms. Tucker said.

In California, the most productive agricultural state in the nation, accounting for more than one-third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts, many of the harvests have already been lost. Farmers were forced to plow over fields planted before March with crops they can’t sell in May.

In some cases, farmers may be able to plant corn or mustard seeds or another crop that would make up for some of the revenue lost because of business closings, Ms. Tucker said.

The problem is not confined to farmers. President Trump took the extraordinary step of invoking the Defense Production Act on April 28 to declare the U.S. meatpacking industry critical infrastructure to the nation’s food supply. Mr. Trump made his move after beef, pork and chicken processing plants started shutting down or sharply curtailing production after hundreds of their workers were infected with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, more than 400 workers at a meat processing plant in Missouri were found to have tested positive for the virus, which started in Wuhan, China, late last year. The workers were asymptomatic, giving rise to concerns that the virus is more prevalent within the industry than previously believed.

But it isn’t only the collapse of U.S. markets that has bedeviled the Washington farmers. They sell up to 90% of their crop to Asian countries, but there, too, demand has cratered in response to the health emergency.

That leaves few options for getting rid of spuds designed for french fries — lumps that look like soda cans rather than the sort shoppers might want to make baked potatoes.

“We would have to get every single person in Washington to eat 500 pounds of potatoes every day between now and July 4,” Ms. Tucker said.

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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