ELIZABETH CITY, NC — Red, yellow and white potatoes aren’t the first things that come to mind when you think about North Carolina agriculture, but for six weeks every summer, if you need fresh potatoes, there’s pretty much just once place in the United States to get them.
That certainly explains the North Carolina Potato Association’s slogan “Your Summer Potatoes” – the state ships as many as 17,000 acres of fresh potatoes from roughly mid-June through the end of July. About three-quarters of those go to chip manufacturers around North America, but North Carolina growers ship fresh table potatoes up and down the East Coast as far north as Nova Scotia.
Roger Bright and his family have been growing potatoes in North Carolina since 1926 and a fourth generation is hoping to come aboard Bright Produce.
“It’s only five to six weeks and you’ve got to get it done in that length of time,” Bright says. “It’s just a small window on the East Coast but it works out good. Before people get into Virginia and Delaware they have to stop here. We’ve got 250 acres of potatoes this year and that’s up 50 acres from last year.”
This year most growers say they’ll start digging around June 22. Once the harvest starts, it’s literally non-stop until the last potato is out of the ground and on the road.
The potato association kicks off each season with a gathering of buyers and growers in Elizabeth City, NC each year, a process that’s been going on for decades. The buyers get a chance to see what’s in the ground first-hand and the growers get a chance to pitch their crop.
By all accounts, this season’s crop is shaping up to be well above average with exceptional quality.
Josh Gill from Mid-Isle Farms in Prince Edward Island, Canada was on-hand looking for potatoes to fill a gap in his farm’s Canadian crop, an annual occurrence.
“The timing works well, we usually run out around the end of June, first of July so it works out real well. Our retails chains in Canada, we carry them as far as we can [with Canadian potatoes] almost until the Ontario new crop comes on, and North Carolina fills the gap. It works out very well, it’s an important window and it’s going to be more important this year with Ontario having the rain that they had. I think North Carolina is going to have a really nice window for the market this year. From what I saw today the crop looks really nice so I hope it finishes well for them.”
‘This Crop Is The Best I’ve Seen It’
Chairman and CEO Keith Masser of Sterman Masser, Inc. in Harrisburg, PA is a regular at the Elizabeth City gathering, attending since the late 1970s. He’s a former chairman of what’s now Potatoes USA in 1985 and in 2005 was president of the National Potato Council.
“Our core business is potato distribution, we buy potatoes from growers all over North America and sell to chain stores on the East Coast. This is an important fresh window for us, we switch to new crop potatoes solely. We buy some new crop out of Florida, but we’re also using old crop from the Red River Valley and Prince Edward Island, but when we get to North Carolina we switch all to new crop. We have a steady supply, it’s 400 miles from our main facility, so North Carolina is a very important growing component for us. I have to say probably for this time of the growing season in the third week of May, this crop is the best I’ve seen it.”
L&M Companies in Raleigh sources potatoes from five states and supplies potatoes 12 months of the year. The company’s Derek Ennis says, “We’ve got about three weeks left in our north Florida deal so we should get out of the way in time for North Carolina and transition smoothly with no gaps to our farm here. North Carolina is progressing nicely, the rain they got today is going to help this crop bulk up and they should start a little ahead of where they were last year. It’s one of the better crops they’ve had in a number of years now and looks like the market’s going to shape up nicely and these guys should catch a really good deal this year. They’ve been doing it for 100 years now and they’ve really perfected their crop here.”
Even Kam Quarles, VP of the national potato association, was in the state to meet with NC potato growers and help support this year’s crop.
“We’re really the eyes and ears of the potato industry in DC,” Quarles said. “When our various state associations are having their meetings we want to get out to hear what folks are saying and what the issues are we need to be concentrating on.”