HEYBURN, Idaho â The Idaho potato industry, which made its name on the russet burbank potato, continues to expand beyond its roots.
Many of the stateâs shippers at least dabble in specialty potatoes, and one is completely dedicated to them.
Southwind Farms, which used to sell its own specialty potatoes to the foodservice market exclusively, debuted a retail pack at the Produce Marketing Associationâs Oct. 2-5 Fresh Summit 2009 in Anaheim, Calif., said Rob Lake, who handles agronomy and market development.
Rob Lake, who handles agronomy and market development for Southwind Farms, shows off some fingerling potatoes being packed at the company's facility in Heyburn, Idaho.
âWeâve had some other packs, but this is the first time our own is going through us and into retail,â Lake said.
The new pack is a 1.5-pound resealable polybag with fingerlings. The specialty potato companyâs specialty. Southwind Farms grows, packs and sells fingerlings, but also brings in other specialties. This year marks its sixth season in business.
âWeâve nearly doubled or tripled our acreage every year,â Lake said. âBut this is our first year in business we havenât doubled.â
The company started with 4 acres, but now has more than 200.
âAs far as growing russet burbanks, thatâll probably never happen here,â Lake said.
Lake said the retail product emerged because some of Southwindâs foodservice customers had their own customers in retail that were looking for fingerlings.
âIt takes a lot of money to develop a program, so it was like one step at a time, and we started with foodservice,â Lake said. âFoodservice is still growing for us, but we think the potential is in retail.â
Southwind started harvesting the first week of August, and should be harvest through Oct. 1, with storage product lasting until April or May. Lake expects to harvest up to 35,000 cwt. of potatoes this year.
âThe crop is looking really good, probably one of the best crops weâve ever had,â Lake said. âPack-outâs excellent this year.â
The weather was so conducive to growing this year that the company started harvesting about two weeks early, he said.
The market, however, is not looking as good as the crop looks.
âPricing so far is a little less than last,â Lake said. âCalifornia had some product that was king of hanging in the market a little longer than last.â
Although demand for specialties is growing with the category, fingerlings can be a risky crop to grow.
âIt costs three times as much to grow fingerlings than russets, and the trade expects the spuds to be perfect,â Lake said. âBut thatâs probably the biggest feather in our cap. Our quality is better than anybodyâs.â
In late August, Southwind was shipping Russian bananas, both jumbo and small, and some French fingerlings with yellow flesh, but was waiting for red thumbs and purples until late September. The company also packs under the Exotic Gourmet label. Lake said most of its products at the moment are going into Los Angeles.
Specialty potatoes can be hard for some russet packer-shippers to process, as they require a separate packing line because of their different parameters, but several of the larger Idaho shippers are also making specialties available.
âSpecialties are something weâre very into â a good part of our business,â said Jayme Higham, vice president of business development and foodservice for Potandon Produce LLC, Idaho Falls.
Potandon ships the Klondike Rose, a red-skinned, yellow-fleshed potato, and the Klondike Gold Dust, which has both yellow skin and flesh. It also has a line of miniature yellow, purples and reds.
Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice, said the Idaho Potato Commission, Eagle, has been talking to food editors about Idahoâs specialty potatoes.
Many chefs buy specialty potatoes in their local markets, which are only available for a limited time, Odiorne said.
âTheyâre only available a limited time of the season, and this is a great way to expand the season,â Odiorne said.
Last year, fingerlings from Idaho were available August through May, he said.
âItâs a lot longer season than what youâd have locally,â Odiorne said.
âWeâve been doing a fair amount of reds, and have for years,â said Gary Garnand, president of Garnand Marketing LLC, Twin Falls. âThey are asking for the reds, and starting to ask for the yellows.â
Wada Farms Marketing Group, Idaho Falls, is dabbling in specialties, said Kevin Stanger, vice president of sales and marketing.
âWe are going a small amount of acreage of specialty crops thatâll be ready for harvest in September,â Stanger said late August.
Wilcox Fresh, however, stopped growing specialty potatoes this year.
âWe usually grow some reds, a few fingerlings, but we didnât this year,â said Lynn Wilcox, president of the Rexburg-based company.
This is the first year in six that the company hasnât grown specialties, Wilcox said.
âWe had a hard time giving away our red potatoes last year, so we got discouraged,â Wilcox said. âAs luck would have it, we probably would have been happy to have them this year.â
The company still buys and repacks red potatoes for its customers.
âWeâve got some reds from California still now,â Wilcox said late August.