The potato is a member of the nightshade family. The leaves of the potato plant are poisonous and a potato will begin to turn green if left too long in the light. This green skin contains solanine, a substance that can cause the potato to taste bitter and even cause illness in humans. In Peru, the Inca Indians were the first to cultivate potatoes around 200 BC. The Indians developed potato crops because their staple diet of corn would not grow above an altitude of 3,350 meters. In 1536, after conquering the Incas, the Spanish Conquistadors brought potatoes back to Europe. At first, Europeans did not accept the potato because it was not mentioned in the Bible and was therefore considered an "evil" food. But after Marie Antoinette wore a crown of potato flowers, it finally became a popular food. In 1897, during the Alaskan Klondike gold rush, potatoes were so valued for their vitamin C content that miners traded gold for potatoes. The potato became the first vegetable to be grown in outer space in October 1995.
The potato is a highly nutritious, fat-free, cholesterol-free and sodium-free food, and is an important dietary staple in over 130 countries. A medium-sized potato contains only 100 calories. Potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C and provide B vitamins as well as potassium, copper, magnesium, and iron. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "a diet of whole milk and potatoes would supply almost all of the food elements necessary for the maintenance of the human body."
Potatoes are one of the largest vegetable crops grown in the U.S., and are grown in all fifty states. The U.S. ranks about 4th in world potato production. The top three types of potatoes grown extensively in the U.S. are white, red, and Russets (Russets account for about two-thirds the U.S. crop). Potatoes in the U.S. are harvested in all four seasons, but the vast majority of the crop is harvested in fall. Potatoes harvested in the winter, spring and summer are used mainly to supplement fresh supplies of fall-harvested potatoes and are also important to the processing industries. The four principal categories for U.S. potato exports are frozen, potato chips, fresh, and dehydrated. Fries account for approximately 95% of U.S. frozen potato exports.
Prices - The average monthly price received for potatoes by U.S. farmers in 2007 fell -2.9% to $7.12 per hundred pounds, down from last year's 18-year high of $7.33 per hundred pounds.
Supply - The total potato crop in 2007 rose by +3.3% to 44.797 billion pounds, but that was still well below the record high of 50.936 billion pounds posted in 2000. The fall crop in 2007 rose by 0.3% to 40.009 billion pounds, accounting for 89% of the total crop. Stocks of the fall crop (as of Dec 1, 2007) were 27.010 billion pounds. In 2007, the spring crop rose +4.7% to 2.069 billion pounds, the summer crop fell -6.9% to 1.691 billion pounds, and the winter crop fell -45.0% to 247.3 million pounds.
The largest producing states for the fall 2007 crop were Idaho (with 33% of the crop), Washington (26%), Wisconsin (7%), North Dakota (6%), and Colorado (5%). For the spring crop, the largest producing states were Florida (with 38% of the crop), and California (with 30% of the crop).
Farmers harvested 1.129 million acres in 2007, up +0.6% from 2006 but still with the third lowest acreage planting since 1980. The yield per harvested acre in 2007 rose by +1.3% to 39,800 pounds per acre.
Demand - Total utilization of potatoes in 2006 (latest data available) rose +4.1% yr/yr to 44.135 billion pounds. The breakdown shows that the largest consumption category for potatoes is frozen French fries with 29% of total consumption, followed closely by table stock (23%), chips and shoestrings (15%), and dehydration (12%). U.S. per capita consumption of potatoes in 2007 rose +2.1% to 126.0 pounds but still well below the record high of 145.0 pounds per capita seen in 1996.
Trade - U.S. exports of potatoes in 2007 rose by +3.4% to 621.200 million pounds. U.S. exports hit a record high of 693.196 million pounds in 2002. U.S. imports rose sharply by +51.2% to 923.500 million pounds which was a new record high.