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Poor Potato Crops Could Lead to a North American French Fry Shortage

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Potato harvest are down, but french fry demand is up. (Ivan / Getty Stock Images)
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Dreary weather hit North American potato growers hard this fall, leading to dreary news for french-fry lovers in the United States and Canada. According to Ashley Robinson of Bloomberg, poor potato crop yields could mean that spud prices will rise this year—and french fries might be in short supply.

The trouble started in October, when cold and wet conditions left potato growing regions covered in frost. Farmers in Alberta and Ohio were able to salvage and store some of their crops, but farmers in other areas, like Manitoba, North Dakota and Minnesota, had no choice but to give up on their beleaguered potatoes.

Back in November, the United States Department of Agriculture predicted that production outputs from the country’s top nine potato producing states will fall 6.1 percent in 2019. Crops were down three percent in the autumn season alone, which, according to the United Potato Growers of Canada, “is one of the lowest crops on record.”

In Canada, the land of poutine, officials are expected to release estimates for potato yields on December 6. But Robinson reports that Manitoba, Canada’s second-largest potato-growing province, had to leave around 12,000 acres of potato crops unharvested—the same amount abandoned across all of Canada last season.

While potato production may have declined, our appetite for salty, crunchy fries has not. “French fry demand has just been outstanding lately,” Travis Blacker, industry-relations director with the Idaho Potato Commission, tells Robinson.

This snack is at particular risk because French fry makers typically favor large potatoes, and failing harvests have meant that spuds are smaller this year. If the potato supplies are down, french fry costs might go up. Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, tells Ben Cousins of CTV News that eateries may start serving smaller portions of fries for the same cost as a way of coping with the shortage. But pricey potatoes are not an entirely new phenomenon; Charlebois notes that the cost of the spuds is already climbing.

“One thing that people don’t know is that prices have actually gone up in the past 12 months,” he explains. “Potatoes are ... 20 percent more expensive than a year ago and frozen fries up 17 per cent from a year ago.”

The potential shortage is a “manageable situation,” Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of the United Potato Growers of Canada, tells Robinson. In Canada, for instance, potato farms on the East coast fared relatively well this year, so the spuds may just have “to move from one channel to another that they sometimes don’t move in a normal year.”

And there may be more good news. After suffering low yields due to Hurricane Florence last year, sweet potato crops are back on track in North Carolina, the leading producer in the United States. So if all else fails in the regular fry world, sweet potato fries might remain a tasty option.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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