It rarely gets the attention of crops like corn, wheat or canola, but the lowly potato has suddenly become a hot commodity.
Canada is facing a potato shortage, mainly because of poor growing conditions last summer. That has sent wholesale prices for some spuds soaring and forced processors such as Toronto-based McCain Foods Ltd. to temporarily close some plants.
McCain announced this week that seven processing plants in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, Wisconsin and Maine will face some downtime this summer because of the shortage. Idaho-based J. R. Simplot Co. also scaled back production at some of its facilities this spring because of a lack of potatoes.
Unusually wet weather across much of Manitoba and Atlantic Canada last year led to one of the smallest potato crops in decades. Overall potato production was down about 11 per cent last year but in parts of New Brunswick and PEI, two of the major growing regions, the supply fell by more than 30 per cent.
"It was the worst year by far," said Joe Brennan, a potato farmer near Bath, N.B., who is also chair of Potatoes New Brunswick, which represents growers from across the province. Mr. Brennan said total potato revenue for New Brunswick farmers from last year's crop will likely be around $100-million, roughly $40-million less than normal.
Production was so low in Manitoba, which is second to PEI in terms of Canadian potato production, that the province became a potato importer for the first time in 20 years.
There are generally two types of potatoes grown in Canada; specialized varieties for food processors and table potatoes that are sold in grocery stores. Processing potatoes, used to make French fries and hash browns, are usually grown by farmers under contract, where the company specifies the volume and price. And they typically require a longer growing season than table spuds.
The shortage meant many farmers couldn't fulfill their contracts, forcing McCain and other companies to make up the difference elsewhere.
"The shortage has driven up the cost of raw potatoes," company spokesperson Calla Farn said. "We contract with our growers to supply us with potatoes and if they run out, we have to ship potatoes in from other areas or buy them on the open market if they're available. When there's a shortage, the prices on the open market are higher than the contracted price."
Ms. Farn added that McCain accelerated processing in recent months because potatoes held in storage were beginning to deteriorate. But the company is now running low on supplies.
The wholesale price of table potatoes has also increased somewhat. Prices for some table varieties in the United States have jumped to close to 10 cents (U.S.) a pound recently, up 18 per cent from 2010 and the highest in more than a decade. However, consumers likely haven't noticed much of a price increase at the grocery store mainly because of continued strong production out of Idaho, which grows more potatoes than all of Canada.
The 2012 crop is in the ground and so far the weather across most of Canada has co-operated, giving farmers hope for a normal harvest. Contract prices for processing potatoes have also jumped by about 11 per cent this year.
"We always expect it to be good this time of year," said Mr. Brennan. "The weather forecast? Who knows."