June 5, 2009

Last month’s flooding rain causes $45 million in damage

HASTINGS — For one month out of each year, potatoes grown in Northeast Florida are the majority of all potatoes served on American tables east of the Mississippi River.

But last month’s flooding rains were devastating to the farmers who harvest tons of the dietary staple from 18,000 acres at the confluence of St. Johns, Flagler and Putnam counties. Potatoes on about 35 farms were left underwater, causing as much as $45 million in damage, according to several estimates.

Some farmers have abandoned this year’s crop altogether, suffering substantial losses in an industry that employs 1,300 and has flourished in the same area for more than 100 years.

About half of the farmers who grow potatoes for sale in grocery store produce sections were hit harder than the half who grow potatoes for use in potato chips, according to Mark Warren, an agent for the University of Florida’s Flagler County Extension Service. That’s because the damaged potatoes that are still edible have blemished appearances now. That’s something picky grocery shoppers don’t forgive, he said.

“Some of our fresh market potato guys are losing 15 to 20 percent,” he said.

One of those farmers is Danny Johns, owner of Blue Sky Farms in Hastings, and president of the North Florida Grower’s Exchange. A fourth-generation potato farmer, he employs about 75. Since the flooding, they have been busy trying to filter good potatoes from the bad. To do that, the potatoes are being screened two or three times instead of the usual one, to make sure the potatoes that look good really are.

In a normal year, it’s not uncommon for Blue Sky potatoes to go from the field to the delivery truck in the same day, he said. It’s taking longer to find the perfect potatoes in a number of varieties that usually constitute the vast majority of Blue Sky Farm’s products, Johns said. He said he doesn’t yet know how much he’ll get back from the crops to pay off the $3 million in loans borrowed to finance the effort. He’s gotten about half of that back so far, he said, and his crews are doggedly trying for more.

“Right now, we’re on schedule, but the yields are way down,” he said.

Some of Johns’ fields are producing passably while others have been virtually wiped out.

Many potatoes that were underwater for days were left blackened and rotting, Johns said. Some were never dug from fields because they had weakened skin that invited insect attack.

Of harvested potatoes, some have enlarged pores because they soaked up too much water, and others are left with weak skins, which can rub away easily, and won’t pass the muster of the average grocery store shopper.

Depending on the extent of the damage, some damaged potatoes are being used to feed cattle and some are being given to food banks. Others, which may only have a stray blemish here and there, are sold to restaurants for use in prepared foods, he said.

Johns said he’s one of the lucky ones. At least eight area potato farms whose fields were underwater for days have given up for the year, he said.

The prices for potatoes are still stable, Johns said, because potatoes are being shipped in from growers in Western states. But he expects there will be a price increase soon, he said.

Chad Hutchinson, University of Florida associate professor of horticultural science, said the Florida industry will recover because it’s upheld a reputation for high quality.

“Our growers have a lot of expenses, so our quality needs to be high,” he said.

Between all the farmers, the industry generally harvests and sells $60-$70 million in potatoes each year between mid-May and mid-June, Hutchinson said.

University of Florida’s St. Johns extension director, David Dinkins, said the farms work year-round to prepare for the harvest month — preparing and planting.

“They got all the way to the finish line and had a once-in-a-generation rain event,” he said. “A lot of them won’t have any income this year. A lot won’t get their investment back.”

Johns, for one, said he’s determined to make it.

“You’ve got to be an optimist to farm. Plan for the worst and hope for the best,” he said. “We’re going to persevere. I have no doubt about it.”

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