The question of whether to increase the 4-ounce minimum pack size for Idaho russets drew a large crowd at the IGSA convention.
The question of whether to increase the 4-ounce minimum pack size for Idaho russets drew a large crowd at the IGSA convention.

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — Sometimes size does matter, but not when consumers are buying bags of russet potatoes, according to research results presented at the Idaho Grower Shipper Association convention.

“Consumers don’t see an issue here. If they want big potatoes, they buy from the loose bins,” Frank Muir, president of the Idaho Potato Commission told IGSA attendees on Aug. 31.

“So you are going to have to take this information back home and digest it.”

That digestion process has already left a sour taste in the communal mouth of the Idaho potato industry, which Muir said, is split on whether to increase the minimum pack size of russets from 4 ounces to 5 ounces.

Some growers support the increase because they think the resulting reduced volume of fresh russets will boost the price. Other growers see no reason for otherwise good potatoes to go to processors, who pay less than fresh buyers.

The option of increasing the pack size came up during the 2010 whistle-stop tour that Muir does every November to discuss the IPC’s marketing campaign with growers, shippers and processors. Ultimately the decision will be made by a vote under the guidelines of the marketing order that governs the Idaho potato industry.Minimum pack size divides Idaho potato industry

There isn’t a deadline for the vote, Muir said, but he does expect the commission to make a recommendation to the industry by the end of this year.

“We are going to go back and do a little more research and then offer our recommendation,” Muir said Sept. 7.

The commission already paid researchers to gather consumer data on the pack size. An online survey of more than 5,000 people and focus groups totaling 112 people in six cities showed one thing conclusively: Consumers don’t care.

So, the commission had an economic analysis done by Joe Guenthner of the Idaho Center for Potato Research and Education at the University of Idaho.

Among Guenthner’s findings were:

  • 27% of potatoes produced in eastern Idaho, which was used as the sample region, have been in the 4-ounce to 5-ounce range for the past decade;
  • increasing the pack size to 5 ounces would divert about 500 million pounds to processors; and
  • diverting 4-ounce russets away from the fresh market would increase revenue to Idaho shippers by about $130 million annually, assuming economic factors used for the study remain constant.

“If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years, it’s that you cannot rely on economic factors to be stable,” Muir said.

Muir also said some fear processors would turn to other states for potatoes if the pack size is increased. He said as it stands now, about 33% of Idaho’s russets go to the fresh market, which includes retail and foodservice. About 60% go to processors and 7% go for seed stock.

Travis Blacker, president of the Idaho Grower Shipper Association, said the industry is facing difficult questions. He said the association likely will not weigh in on the minimum weight. Rather, like Muir, Blacker said each individual eligible to vote on the marketing order will have to consider the facts and cast their ballots accordingly.