Spuds now duds for farmers in N.J.

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Monday, June 20, 2005.)

Farmer Abe Bakker calls it “The Fertile Triangle.” He also calls it the last bastion of the New Jersey potato farm.

Here, in a small pocket of southwest New Jersey, 11 potato farms cluster together, lining a corridor from Shiloh and Stow Creek, Cumberland County, to Elmer, Salem County. In between, more than 1,500 acres of heavy, lush soil carry the tubers from seed to harvest.

There used to be much more.

At one time, New Jersey produced nearly 900 million pounds of potatoes per year, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

Now the annual harvest is about one-thirteenth that. Only one sizable New Jersey potato farm exists outside the Cumberland-Salem spud oasis.

As usual, the farmland loss is due largely to suburban development. Homes and businesses have covered over the once-rich potato fields of central New Jersey.

But the remaining potato farmers don’t owe their trials to development.

“I can put a bag of potatoes in the hands of half the populace of the United States in 12 hours,” Bakker said, walking the fields of Rabbit Hill Farm in Shiloh. “Half the population of the United States is within 300 miles of my farm. Idaho can’t do that. You’re talking three to four days. You would think that would translate into more sales.”

It hasn’t, because markets changed, and society changed with them.

Changing lifestyles

Contrary to popular belief, Americans probably eat as many potatoes today as they did 30 years ago. The average American ate 119 pounds of potatoes in 1972; in 2002, the number was around 132 pounds.

They’re eating them in different ways, however, consuming more chips and french fries and fewer fresh potatoes. Meanwhile, more households have every adult holding a full-time job, leaving less time for preparing sit-down family meals.

“The American diet has changed,” said John Coombs, an eighth-generation farmer from Elmer. “With the housewife working now, as opposed to 20 years ago, she doesn’t have time to peel potatoes. People used to buy 20- to 50-pound bags of potatoes. Nobody does that anymore. They buy two potatoes for dinner. Society’s changed.”

Potato farmers have adjusted. Many sell large portions – in Coombs’ case, 75 percent – of their harvest to potato chip companies such as Wise, Herr’s and Utz.

What they weren’t ready for was the Atkins diet, which restricts starchy, high-carbohydrate foods such as pasta and potatoes. When Atkins’ popularity spiked in 2003 and 2004, potato farmers took a major hit, particularly those who sell potatoes primarily for fresh consumption.

Bakker lost about half his business and didn’t sell the last of his 2004 harvest until Dec. 28, almost three months later than usual.

“Our generation is one that has not heard the potato nutrition (information),” U.S. Potato Board spokeswoman Meredith Myers said. “We’ve heard all about the fad diets but not the nutrition.”

The real nutrition information is this: Potatoes are a strong source of carbohydrates and extraordinarily high in potassium and Vitamin C. They have no fat, and they stay that way if cooks replace toppings such as sour cream with no-fat yogurt or other alternatives.

Potatoes pack a punch as a no-fat energy food. They’ll survive diet changes, in large part because potatoes are such a steady staple, according to Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau.

Whether potato farmers can survive the corporate world is another matter.

Changing markets

Potato prices are about the same today as they were 15 years ago.

Meanwhile, farmers’ expenses have skyrocketed in recent years. Middle East conflicts have hiked the cost of gasoline needed not only for trucks and tractors but also for processing fertilizer.

“We’re getting killed,” Elmer farmer Bruce Bishop said. “We’re getting the same prices we got years and years ago. You know what’s happening with fuel. Our transportation prices are up. Fertilizer costs are through the roof. Steel prices are up, so farm equipment’s up.”

Elmer farmer Bill Brooks, New Jersey’s representative on the U.S. Potato Board, says overproduction has resulted in a potato supply that outweighs the demand, allowing supermarkets and chip companies to pay farmers less while maintaining profits. Idaho potato farmers hope to change that by forming a cooperative to lower production and grow a better balance of different potato varieties, such as red bliss and Yukon gold.

“It’s a mechanized crop today,” Brooks said. “It’s a crop you can harvest mechanically and plant mechanically. But that causes a problem because it’s easier to expand. That’s caused overproduction, which has caused lower prices.”

Few supermarkets buy directly anymore from farms, other than huge corporate growers. Instead, they buy from large centralized packing houses, such as Gloucester Packing Co. in Woodbury, which process potatoes beyond the July-to-October season. Pennsylvania hosts the region’s largest potato packers, and supermarkets distribute their potatoes across the eastern seaboard.

“We grow maybe one-tenth of 1 percent of what New Jersey consumes,” Bakker said. “So why on earth are we shipping from Maine to Florida?”

A well-traveled potato is a less fresh potato. That typically affects taste, which, for many, is what matters most.

“I have locals who come buy a 30-pound bag of potatoes. They say, `These are the best potatoes I ever had,’ ” said Bakker, who sells some potatoes directly to consumers. “It’s not that I’m the best farmer in the world. But they’re fresh out of the ground. They were in the dirt two hours ago.”