Potato Farmers Getting Mashed

From low prices to mad cow disease, low-carbohydrate diets to the demise of the McDonald's Supersize menu, 2004 isn't shaping up as a good year for the U.S. potato farmer.

Ed Schneider has quit buying farm chemicals locally to save money, and he started his own seed company to eliminate another big expense for his 900-acre potato farm in southeast Washington.

"Fuel prices are going up. Labor prices are going up. I don't think potato prices are going to go up to offset that," Schneider said.

The U.S. potato industry has struggled since the number of acres planted and harvested peaked in 1996. Prices for U.S. potatoes from September through March averaged 14 percent below prices one year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The mad cow scare last year stranded thousands of pounds of frozen potatoes at ports, as countries banned imports of U.S. beef products. Frozen potatoes are often fried in beef fat.

Popular low-carb diets such as Atkins and South Beach encourage consumers to avoid potatoes. And McDonald's, one of the largest consumers of potatoes, announced earlier this year it would stop selling Supersize fries, bowing to pressure to serve a healthier menu.

"If you talked to a grower about the way it was 10 years ago, he'd say it was better 10 years ago," said Pat Boss, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission

So farmers like Schneider search for new ways to trim their budgets, and industry groups are fighting back with full-scale advertising campaigns aimed at better educating Americans about potatoes.

The National Potato Promotion Board recently launched a $4.5 million campaign that mixes print advertising, public relations, and partnerships with weight-loss groups to educate consumers about the healthy benefits of potatoes.

A typical potato contain 45 percent of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C. They have more potassium than bananas, relatively few calories and no fat, said Tim O'Connor, the board's president and chief executive officer of the National Potato Promotion Board.

The Idaho Potato Commission took its campaign a step further, promoting the nutritional benefits of potatoes through television advertising in 26 cities, including New York, Miami and Cincinnati.

By Shannon Dininny