The ‘greening’ of potatoes: Sustainability takes hold

07/13/2010 09:54:29 AM
Jim Offner

In another era, the words “green” and “potato” would have clashed.

Now, though, “sustainability” has found its way into the produce lexicon, and the two words can mingle happily, according to potato marketers.

In fact, those agents say, they must.

Every grower seems to have a program going.

“We’ve actually just finished a pretty extensive and somewhat expensive sustainability study we have available for our customers,” said Kevin Stanger, vice president of sales and marketing for Wada Farms Marketing Group in Idaho Falls, Idaho. “I’d say in the potato industry, none that I’ve seen would compare to this. It’s a pretty extensive study.”

Companies are finding ways to market potatoes by using their environmentally friendly practices as a tool.

The Antigo-based Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association is perhaps a sort of poster child for that concept. The association’s Healthy Grown Initiative, in which growers use fewer inputs and take their operations through thorough audits, is now several years old.

It still has some rough spots to be worked out, association officials say.

“Sustainability on a marketing level is an incredible demand on our production and marketing effort,” said Duane Maatz, the association’s executive director. “Our real struggle with it is there isn’t a grower reward for the expense and effort in going in that direction. We want to go that way.

“We’ve always been hopeful about sustainability, but programs like our Healthy Grown program, being related, are not seeing the reward for the activity behind it. Understanding when they get involved that there’s a significant amount of time and energy involved, at some point you can only push your food supply so far.”

Of the association’s approximately 110 grower members, only about nine or 10 participate in the Healthy Grown Program this year, said Tim Feit, the association’s director of promotions & consumer education. The number tends to range between seven and 12 growers from year to year, he said.

“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “It’s a lot of paperwork. There’s a lot more work and not a lot more monetary payback. But it’s doing the right thing and people like to do what they can do for the environment. People sometimes forget how much farmers care about the land.”

Auditors closely scrutinize all records participating growers are required to keep, Feit said.

“If it doesn’t meet the requirements that the University of Wisconsin has established, it’s not established as Healthy Grown,” he said. “There are a lot of growers that would do it if they found they could move a lot more volume or get a premium price.”


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