Although Red River Valley’s red potatoes are still viewed as a specialty item, demand is strong and grower-shippers expect it to remain so.

The Packer’s 2011 Fresh Trends reported that 16% of consumers surveyed preferred to purchase red potatoes, while 43% preferred russets.

Still, overall demand for red potatoes has been strong since the spring and throughout the summer, said Ted Kreis, marketing and communications director for Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, East Grand Forks, Minn.

“Demand outstrips supply,” he said.

This season, a short supply likely will continue through fall because Red River Valley crop production is down. As a result, Kreis said he expects prices to remain relatively high.

In early October, 50-pound sacks of U.S. No. 1 size A round red potatoes from Minnesota were priced at $20 in the Chicago terminal market, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported.

That’s much higher than a year earlier, when 50-pound sacks of U.S. No. 1 size A round red potatoes from Minnesota and North Dakota were priced at $12-16 in Chicago, according to the USDA.

It wasn’t just red potatoes that were priced higher — overall commodity prices rose sharply, Kreis said.

Early this season, around Sept. 21, red potatoes were priced at $28 per cwt., said Tom Campbell, co-owner and sales manager, Campbell Farms, Grafton, N.D.

But not many sheds were shipping yet and market supplies were low, he said.

“Pricing compared to any year I remember is phenomenal,” said Steve Tweten, president and sales manager at NoKota Packers Inc., Buxton, N.D. “It’s a very good price with good demand. Buyers are wanting great red potatoes.”

Cory Seim, general manager, Northern Valley Growers, Hoople, N.D., also described the $28-per-cwt. price as “phenomenal” and “record-setting.”

The market was strong in late September, and it started with good quality potatoes, which was just what Northern Valley’s buyers were looking for, he said.

Seim said he expected demand to remain strong, and though prices were likely to fall, he hoped to maintain good returns to growers.

Demand in September was good, but it was too early to say how it would be throughout the remainder of the season, Campbell said.

“The whole story isn’t in yet,” he said.

Paul Dolan, general manager of Associated Potato Growers Inc., Grand Forks, N.D., said he expected demand to pick up later in the season, when prices likely will drop as more supplies enter the market.

Following a period of price adjustment, Dolan said he expected demand for the valley’s red potatoes to grow.

David Moquist, partner and sales manager for O.C. Schulz & Sons, Crystal, N.D., said he expects demand for red potatoes to remain strong.

Even when prices are relatively high, potatoes are a good value and consumers know that, he said.

Tweten said he expects strong demand to continue throughout the season, though that could largely depend on the price of russets as compared to reds.

“People … will pay more for reds to a certain degree,” Tweten said. “It’s viewed as more of a specialty item.”

Tweten said red potatoes remain a specialty item because there aren’t enough acres of reds to compete with russet production.

NoKota and Schulz & Son’s potatoes ship in an area from North Dakota to Texas and to the east of that line.

Most of Associated Potato’s customers are east of Phoenix, but it occasionally ships to the West Coast, Dolan said.

Campbell Farms ships throughout the eastern two-thirds of the U.S., Campbell said.

Moquist said the majority of red potatoes Schulz & Sons markets are size A U.S. No. 1s or 2s.

The Red River Valley potato size guide on the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association’s website says at least 40% of a pack of potatoes labeled as A size must be 2½ inches in diameter. It is the most common size used in consumer bags, according to the guide.

About 20% of Schulz & Sons’ potatoes are B size, which is 1½ to 2¼ inches in diameter. The guide refers to these as “new” potatoes or baby reds.

Schulz & Sons also markets some C-size potatoes, which are smaller than 1½ inches in diameter. Demand for small potatoes has been good for many years, Moquist said.

Moquist said Schulz & Sons occasionally gets requests for premium-size potatoes, which are 2½ to 3½ inches in diameter. Jumbos range from 3½ inches in diameter and larger.

Schulz & Sons used to sell a good volume of oversize red potatoes, but now it tries not to have any big reds because demand has fallen, Moquist said.