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Mother Nature turns Midwestern spuds to duds

Farmers and freight volumes suffer

Image: Shutterstock

Potato farmers are disappointed in the way the 2019 crop year is ending along the Red River Valley, from eastern North Dakota to northwestern Minnesota. The weather has forced many of those farmers to leave their crops in the fields after Mother Nature dealt a one-two punch.

Damaged potatoes at Hoverson Farms in Larimore, North Dakota. (Photo: Grand Forks Herald)

The damage done

Near Grand Forks, Minnesota, successive nights of subfreezing temperatures from late October into early November caused an estimated $45 million in damage to around 9,000 acres of red and yellow potato crops in the Red River Valley. Wet conditions in October delayed the potato harvest that usually occurs around Oct. 1. This left about half of the red and yellow crops, which are grown for the fresh market, vulnerable to frost damage. This is what Ted Kreis, spokesman for the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, told Fresh Plaza on Nov. 4.

After three straight nights of low temperatures in the middle teens to around 20 degrees Fahrenheit at the end of October, and with no snow on top of the crop to insulate it, Kreis said it is unlikely that the potatoes will be worth harvesting. Those lows were five to 15 degrees below normal for Grand Forks and Fargo for late October.

Kreis has estimated total crop losses are 45% to 55%, but won’t know the true damage until all the inventory is counted.

“Everybody’s got a different plan, but (shippers) are certainly going to be taking care of their best, long-standing customers first,” Kreis said. Some sheds are operating at partial capacity, he added, and running only a few days a week.

An Oct. 30 Facebook post by Red River Valley Potatoes stated, “Even old-timers don’t remember a year this bad. On a positive note, the potatoes already in storage look very good but consumers should look for higher prices and an earlier than normal end to the Red River Valley shipping season.”

Photo: Northern Plains Potato Growers Association

The Red River Valley accounted for about 25% of U.S. red potato production last year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that 50-pound cartons of round red size B potatoes were $23 to $25.50 on Oct. 31, up from $14.50 to $16 per carton the same time a year ago. The region is lesser known for yellow potato production compared to red, but Kreis said yellow potato prices have also moved higher in recent weeks.

At a recent roundtable discussion, a potato farmer from East Grand Forks, Minnesota, told Gov. Tim Walz (DFL-MN) that it would be game over for his crops if the cold weather lasted too long. This is according to KVLY-TV.

“It’s in our business to keep these folks in business for the next generation,” Walz told farmers in East Grand Forks at a potato inspection office of Minnesota’s department of agriculture.

Casey Folson, another farmer at the roundtable, said he is a fifth-generation potato farmer. His family began with a small North Dakota farm but has since expanded to hundreds of acres in East Grand Forks.

“They [the potatoes] go all over the United States to all the lower 48s to retailers, to food distributors,” Folson said.

Folson felt cheated by Mother Nature. “You see that ground is so hard you can’t even open it,” he said.

“We’ve only harvested 40% of our acres and still have about 60% in the ground,” Folson said. “With the temperatures getting colder, it’s looking more and more like they’re not getting harvested.”

Other potato farmers in the region shared the same feelings and concerns as Gov. Walz, as well as Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen.

Impact on freight

The number of trucks picking up potatoes is down this year compared to last year. It’s not only having an impact on farmers but also businesses connected to the agriculture industry. In the latest SONAR data from FreightWaves, we’re currently seeing around 10% fewer trucks in the Fargo market – located on the Red River – compared to this time last year. This confirms what growers are experiencing firsthand.


Compounding the capacity crunch of refrigerated trailers, known as “reefers,” was the devastating effect of colder temperatures in late October. Outbound volumes of reefer freight (ROTVI.FAR) from the Fargo market dropped 20% as temperatures plummeted. Around the same time, capacity tightened. Tender rejections in Fargo (ROTRI.FAR) – the percentage of offered loads not accepted by carriers – of outbound reefer freight increased 832 basis points to 59.66% as growers shipped what stock they could before the season ended. This is shown in the chart above.

Economic disaster for farmers

Minnesota farmers argued for a disaster declaration, similar to what was done in North Dakota. However, unlike North Dakota, the amount of damage to date hasn’t reached the necessary threshold for such a declaration in Minnesota, according to the director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“This perfect storm of trade deals and weather and just not getting it right for you, we can fix some of that,” Walz said. “This is incredibly stressful work. It’s incredibly stressful when your family’s on the line, we know that. … I think this is where communities come together.”

Farmers mentioned to Walz they’re more worried about the younger generation. Folson said it has been a tough year but his family sees it as a rarity, hoping next year is better.

Gov. Walz told farmers he would explore getting a secretarial declaration, which would come from the USDA. This would allow farmers to get loans.

The Red River Valley is a small region, but it’s a big player in overall potato production. It’s the largest producer of red potatoes in the United States. North Dakota and Minnesota combined form the third-largest potato growing region in the country. According to the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association (NPPGA), potato farmers in the northern Great Plains raise about 62% of potatoes for fry processing, 10% for seed, 12% for chipping and 16% for the fresh market.

Statewide, 70% of the potatoes in North Dakota and 92% of the potatoes in Minnesota had been harvested as of Oct. 27, based on the latest report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Those numbers represent averages, meaning farmers in some areas have been able to get the majority of their crops out of the field while others have harvested little or none.

Looking ahead

Some potato crops in the region got so much rain and snow since early fall that conditions were too muddy for some farmers to work their fields. So they suffered partial losses. Subsequent frost damage means the potatoes won’t fry well.

Several locations along the Red River and its tributaries are still at minor flood stage. River flood warnings from the National Weather Service (NWS) remain posted and are housed inside the FreightWaves SONAR Critical Events platform in the map below.

SONAR Critical Events: Tuesday, October 5, 2019, 4:00 p.m. EDT.

To make matters worse, after temperatures warmed a bit these first few days of November, another cold snap is coming back this week. Through Nov. 10, highs in Grand Forks and Fargo will only reach the middle 20s to near 30 F, with lows as cold as 12 to 15 F some nights – another sign that Mother Nature is putting an end to this year’s Red River potato harvest.

Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.