Ryan Holterhoff, director of marketing and industry affairs at the Washington State Potato Commission, said 90% of the state’s crop is shipped outside of Washington, with a large amount going to international markets.
Seeking new markets
Canada is the largest importer of fresh potatoes from Washington, but there are other significant markets as well.
“The growers and shippers in Washington have a distinct advantage in that we have key seaports available right within our state. This close proximity allows access to critical markets throughout Asia and Central America,” Holterhoff said.
Finding new markets is also a continual focus.
“We will continue to work closely with the U.S. Potato Board and National Potato Council in developing new markets,” Holterhoff said.
Tailoring marketing programs
Marketing potatoes internationally requires programs similar to domestic efforts, but they must be tailored to each country’s needs, said Sarah Reece, international marketing manager for the U.S. Potato Board.
Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, agrees.
“Cultures are so different, so marketing efforts are all different as well. How to cook and prepare potatoes in each country is different,” he said.
“Each market is different, and it’s all based on consumer research. We really try to focus on what gaps are there and where the lack of knowledge is,” Reece said.
That means the board reaches out to consumers, foodservice outlets and retail locations in an attempt to provide information to all import channels. Education about varieties is one of its most important tasks.
“A lot of foreign consumers aren’t familiar with all the U.S. potato varieties,” Reece said.
With a potential expansion into the Mexican market, education efforts will be critical.
In the year 2012-13, the U.S. exported 79,721 metric tons of potatoes to Mexico.
“In Mexico, they only have round white potatoes, so they are only familiar with russets along the border. Part of going into the Mexican market will be educating consumers about all the different varieties,” Ehrlich said.
Overall, the best-selling varieties are russets, because they are better known. However, as education improves, demand for specialty products such as red, yellow and purple varieties also are growing in demand.
When a new market opens, Reece said marketing efforts typically begin with education and cultivating shipper and importer relationships.
“The first thing we do is develop and distribute educational material for importers and retailers to give them detailed information on proper storage and handling techniques. We tell them what each variety is and how it’s best used,” Reece said.
Then, meetings and trade missions
are scheduled to help exporters develop relationships.
When the Philippine market opened up this year, the board scheduled a trade mission for shippers to go to the new market and a reverse mission for importers to visit potato operations in the U.S.
“It’s really impressive to international buyers to see the technology of potato production in the U.S. because it’s far more advanced than other markets,” Reece said.
Trade representatives stationed in new markets keep open lines of communication with buyers. They answer questions about table stock potatoes, and help with developing sales relationships.
In addition, sample shipments can be useful.
“We recently sent a sample shipment with several varieties of fresh potatoes to distribute to different retailer and foodservice outlets so they could evaluate them and determine which would meet their customers’ needs,” Reece said.
In more mature markets, Reece said the board focuses on transferring concepts from U.S. trends and best practices, implementing as much domestic information as possible.
“We try to implement cross-merchandising, point-of-sale materials, organizing displays so all types of potatoes are together, and just moving some of those concepts to international markets,” she said.
Specifics are changed for each market.
“We may tweak some things and make adjustments, but we try to use as many of those techniques as possible,” Reece said.
As a result of these efforts, potato exports have increased in the past few years. In the 2008-09 season, the U.S. exported 282,110 metric tons of fresh potatoes. In 2012-13, 456,366 metric tons were shipped.