(Dec. 28) The United Nations has declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato, but grower-shippers and marketers pin their early 2008 hopes on a sales boost in February, typically a lackluster month for movement.

While the UN’s take in celebrating the tuber’s contributions focus on its role in helping stave off starvation in developing areas, the Idaho Potato Commission’s Potato Lovers Month promotion is more basic — increase sales during February.

Seth Pemsler, vice president of retail merchandising for the Eagle, Idaho-based commission, said the promotion, now in its 17th year, has been a fantastic success for potato sales in general and the Idaho brand in particular, especially in recent years.

“The last three years have been more successful than the prior 13 years,” Pemsler said.

He said success is measured by the number of individual retail stores that create contest displays featuring Idaho potatoes along with its primary partner, Kraft Foods Inc.

“The average number of stores that entered in the first 13 years was 700,” he said. “The average in the last three years is 2,100, with 2,700 in 2005, and we’re hoping to see those numbers again in 2008.”

Potato Lovers Month is the commission’s largest promotion, and Pemsler attributes part of its increasing popularity over the past three years to the tie-in with Kraft.

Other changes to the competition include higher value prizes that go to the stores’ produce managers.

“Something else we did that had a huge impact was to add the category managers,” Pemsler said. “If the produce manager at a store wins $1,000, the category manager also wins $1,000. In the past it was only a store-level promotion. That’s fine, but we all know the decisions (to participate) are made at the senior level.”