The Potato vs. the Economy

Ireland became part of the United Kingdom in 1801, but as a conquered country. The population was eighty-percent Catholic, the majority living in poverty. Until 1829, Catholics were not allowed to own property. Most of the land was owned by English, many of them absentee landlords. Their agents managed the properties and collected rent with almost no regulatory oversight. Most Irish farmers were tenants “at will,” subject to eviction at the whims of the owner or the owners’ agents. The farmers produced peas, beans, honey, rabbits and fish, most of it exported. The tenants themselves subsisted primarily on potatoes and water.

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Looming French-Fry Shortage

Late-winter storms blessed the Pacific Northwest with record snowpack this past winter after years of mostly below-normal snow. Everyone from skiers to gardeners is pleased; everyone, that is, except potato farmers in Idaho and eastern Washington and Oregon. The lingering winter weather has delayed the planting of this year’s crop. In normal years planting starts by the end of February; in 2019 the ground was not ready until April. Farmers are trying to get planting done in a month, a process normally taking two-and-a-half months.

Seventy percent of the nation’s French fries and hash browns and tater tots come from Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Northwest potato farmers did well last year, shipping much of a record crop to the rest of the U.S. as well as Canada and Europe where the harvests were poor.

Farmers have contracts with potato processors that give leverage to the processors. To keep up with French-fry demand, they can require the tubers be harvested before fully mature, thus reducing the yield – and the growers’ income – by thirty to forty percent.

Nothing like the Irish potato blight of the mid-nineteenth century when diseased crops – abetted by the United Kingdom’s refusal to interfere with God’s free-enterprise plan by providing aid – resulted in the deaths of more than a million Irish and the emigration of two-and-a-half-million more. So, if later this year, you’re paying more for your favorite pommes frite, remind yourself that it could be worse.