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.”

But Feit said if sustainability is the wave of the future for the potato business, Wisconsin has an advantage because of Healthy Grown.

“Before anybody was talking about sustainability, we were ahead of the curve,” he said. “Now, it’s tipping toward more people caring about the environment and caring about what they buy. Eventually, they listen to the customers.”

As word spreads and customer interest builds, the Healthy Grown program is bound to attract more participants, Feit said.

“If there are enough people saying they want an option, more growers will start being more open to it,” he said. “Everybody is always afraid of adding another SKU (stock-keeping unit), unless they have a good reason.”

Dick Okray, co-owner of Okray Family Farms Inc. in Plover, Wis., said the industry is trending that way.

“It is a nonending job and certainly in the forefront of everybody’s mind,” he said, adding that his company is headed in that direction.

“We are going down the road of some projects,” Okray said. “When we announce them in three or four or five months, we’ll have a lot to crow about. A lot of companies have been working through sustainability issues and talking to retailers. We all ride this together because we’re all on this planet together.”

Retailers are asking growers and shippers about sustainability these days, Okray said.

“We’re compiling all that stuff and telling them we’re using less water, less fertilizer, generating a good crop,” he said. “The environment is being treated in better and saner ways. A lot of that has to do with chemicals. Companies are coming up with formulations that are better for the environment. It’s for people and always better for us.”

It’s happening in other growing areas, as well.

Paul Dolan, general manager of Grand Forks, N.D.-based Associated Potato Growers Inc. said his organization is moving toward greener practices.

“Basically, we’ve started to switch some of our lighting over, trying to use less water and recycling water,” he said. “Also, we’re looking at down the road implementing recyclable things in cardboard and plastic that we’re disposing of. I think that’s hopefully by next season we’ll have some of that implemented.”

These types of initiatives make perfect sense, because sustainability and marketing can go hand in hand, said Tim O’Connor, executive director of the Denver-based U.S. Potato Board.

“We certainly think sustainability is important because it represents good business decisions that will make growers money,” he said. “It’s important because customers are demanding it. They’re presenting themselves as doing the right things and want consumers to value them as a steward of the earth. There’s a clear momentum behind that. It makes good sense for all of us.”



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