By the time you read this, the great Dick’s Drive-In potato scare has likely passed, and the fast-food chain is back to serving its traditionally crispy fries. That was a close one, Seattle.
Last week, the restaurant’s social media warned customers it was running out of locally sourced potatoes, which could result in fries that were not up to standards. In fact, “some locations are even using a different potato than normal to tie us over until the new harvest gets here from eastern Washington,” the message read.
Examining the root of this vegetable crisis is a good reminder of what a powerhouse the state has become in the world of spuds and how the humble potato is impacted by everything from climate change to the supply chain crunch.
Washington produces 20% of all potatoes grown in the United States, contributing more than $7.4 billion to the state’s economy and supporting about 36,000 jobs. Almost all the state’s potato farms are family owned, according to the Washington State Potato Commission, which runs the website potatoes.com (better luck next time, Idaho).
Four out of five of the state’s top trading partners — Japan, China, South Korea and the Philippines — import our frozen french fries, adding up to more than $780 million in exports, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
The price of potatoes, and their availability, have been on a roller coaster these last few years.
Prolonged restaurant closures during the pandemic severely crimped demand, with farmers losing almost $30 million for the 2019 harvest, the state potato commission reported. As demand started to rebound, the supply chain crisis made exports more difficult.
Carriers could make more money by speeding an empty container back to Asia, so it could be filled by in-demand products, than to wait for farmers to ship their goods. Congress recently passed the bipartisan Ocean Shipping Reform Act, which is expected to help U.S. exports, and container access is slowly improving, experts said.
The potato industry is also benefiting from tariff free access to Japan thanks to a trade agreement and a Mexican Supreme Court decision that granted full access to the Mexican market after years of legal disputes.
As for Dick’s, last year’s extreme hot weather impacted yields, with growers running out of potatoes by late May. This year’s early crop was affected by an unseasonably cold and rainy spring resulting in a later harvest. Dick’s CEO Jasmine Donovan told Seattle Times business reporter Maya Miller the chain depends on a steady supply of fresh potatoes, which it expected to see restored this week.
That, along with the state’s potato industry, is worth celebrating with a crispy french fry or two.