Amid uncertainty in the markets, Wilcox Fresh sees normalcy in the new potato crop

wilcoxfresh Foodservice accounts for around 60 percent of business for Wilcox Fresh in Rexburg, ID, and for most of the company’s foodservice customers, business is off by anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. The uncertainties of how soon that sector will return to normal are concerning.

“Foodservice being off worries me,” said Derek Peterson, vice president of shed operations. “It is hard to predict how much foodservice will be off this coming year. We know some of those foodservice dollars are being spent at retail, but not all of them.”

But trying to predict markets under the current situation “is really difficult,” he said, noting how frequently “safety guidelines have been restricted or lifted, all within a matter of weeks or a month” during the coronavirus pandemic, just within “our own state of Idaho,” and every region is different.

Yet even in the face of those uncertainties, there are some bright spots.

One is the company’s 2020 potato crop, which as of Aug. 31, about a week into the harvest, was appearing completely normal.

“We had a very average growing season as far as temperatures,” he said. “Never too cold, never too hot, pretty ideal, really, almost boringly average, which was great.”

So far, the harvest has been right on schedule, he said. “The crop seems to have sized up normal,” and yields are running about average in the early Norkotah fields that have been harvested so far.

Quality was looking good as well. “I haven’t seen anything that really concerns me,” he said. “We have been shipping for a week, and we are pretty pleased so far with what we see and with reactions from the customers.”

Wilcox “will probably start digging our Burbanks later in September, and we will start shipping them mid-October. We typically only run Burbanks from storage,” he said. “We have some outstanding Burbank fields,” but also some other fields where the Burbanks might run a little on the small side. “Overall, it’s right where it should be.”

The company also grows and ships some red potatoes, “and I’ll be shipping some of our yellow flesh russets again this year for the holidays,” Peterson said.

“We are ready to get the harvest behind us and hopefully put away a really good crop,” he added. “So far, everything looks really good.”

With foodservice sales off, government programs such as the USDA food box program “come into play and help take up the slack a little bit for growers and shippers,” Peterson said. Aa a company, “we are seeing a pretty good chunk of business from that. I would say upwards of 10 to 15 percent of our current business right now is shipping potatoes to support that program,” which he said is designed not only to feed needy families “but also to support ag producers in all sectors throughout the U.S.”

Typically, most of the potatoes Wilcox has been shipping in support of the food box program have been going out in five-pound bags. That “has been a huge deal for Idaho marketers, because it is hard to fill that big gaping hole that foodservice demand has left.” With retail bags. “It’s hard to put a whole crop” into bags for the retail sector, he said.

A two-week extension to the summer period of the food box program, which would have expired in late August, was a big help, he said. “Like overnight they pumped another couple of billion dollars into that program. That food box program has a huge effect on the market right now.”

Two years ago, Wilcox introduced a line of value-added meal kits called Easy! Creations, with baby potatoes and seasoning packs, each of which “provides endless recipe options.”

“We will be continuing on” with that product, Peterson said. “We are still rolling it out one retailer at a time. We are excited that a lot more people will be seeing it this coming year.”

Photo: Derek Peterson

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