WASHINGTON -- Idaho's potato crop last year was so big the spuds are practically worthless. The government wouldn't take them, so at the suggestion of their wives, the growers decided to give about 24 million potatoes to the poor.
Instead of letting the surplus spuds rot in fields, they're sending 360 truckloads of them to food banks across the country.
"It's a neat thing watching it all unfold," said one of the women, Darla Hoff of Idaho Falls.
"That's just a sad thing to see these gorgeous potatoes that people could be eating spread out on the field. That breaks your heart."
The giveaway started small, with donations locally to a women's shelter, the Salvation Army and other places, Hoff said. Then a regional food bank put the farmers in touch with America's Second Harvest, a Chicago-based network of 200 food banks and food-rescue programs nationwide. The food banks agreed to take 15 million pounds.
It is unlikely to have much of an effect on potato prices, but it will be the single largest donation of food ever to America's Second Harvest. In its last fiscal year, Second Harvest distributed 36 million pounds of fresh produce.
Second Harvest is raising money to cover the shipping costs -- about $2,500 per truck. Donations from private companies have paid shipping for 80 truckloads, as well as some of the bagging costs.
"For the growers to put this amount of food into the system is terrific," said Bill Hoover, who runs a Fort Wayne, Ind., food bank that got its first truckload of potatoes this week. By Thursday, half already had been given away.
The first five truckloads of spuds left Idaho Feb. 6. Among destinations so far: Albuquerque, N.M.; Phoenix; Fort Wayne; and Fort Worth, Texas. The food banks are giving the potatoes to soup kitchens, food pantries, women's shelters and other local feeding programs.
The Idaho growers are trying to keep enough potatoes off the market this winter to drive prices up. They asked the Agriculture Department to consider starting a "diversion" program that would pay farmers a modest fee either to destroy some of the potatoes or supply them to federal nutrition programs.
Growers in other parts of the country were not so receptive to the idea, however, so the Idaho growers formed a cooperative to buy up some of the surplus and divert it to uses, such as livestock feed or fertilizer, that would keep it off the market.
The cooperative believes it could double potato prices to 2 cents a pound if it can keep 700 million pounds off the market. Potatoes cost about 5 cents a pound to grow.
Nationwide last fall, farmers harvested 47 billion pounds of potatoes, a 9 percent increase from 1999, according to USDA. In Idaho, which dominates the industry, production was up 14 percent.
The Hoffs alone grew 9 million pounds and had a buyer under contract for just 5 million of that.
At a price of one cent a pound, farmers say they are better off leaving the potatoes in their fields to rot into fertilizer.
"It's a pretty bleak price situation. They're not exaggerating that," said USDA economist Chuck Plummer.
On the Net:
America's Second Harvest: http://www.secondharvest.org
Idaho Potato Commission: http://www.famouspotatoes.org