Some make their name in specialty potatoes, some dabble

10/26/2009 11:30:40 AM
Ashley Bentley

HEYBURN, Idaho — The Idaho potato industry, which made its name on the russet burbank potato, continues to expand beyond its roots.

Many of the state’s 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 Association’s Oct. 2-5 Fresh Summit 2009 in Anaheim, Calif., said Rob Lake, who handles agronomy and market development.

Ashley Bentley

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.

“We’ve had some other packs, but this is the first time our own is going through us and into retail,” Lake said.

The new pack is a 1.5-pound resealable polybag with fingerlings. The specialty potato company’s specialty. Southwind Farms grows, packs and sells fingerlings, but also brings in other specialties. This year marks its sixth season in business.

“We’ve nearly doubled or tripled our acreage every year,” Lake said. “But this is our first year in business we haven’t doubled.”

The company started with 4 acres, but now has more than 200.

“As far as growing russet burbanks, that’ll probably never happen here,” Lake said.

Lake said the retail product emerged because some of Southwind’s foodservice customers had their own customers in retail that were looking for fingerlings.

“It takes a lot of money to develop a program, so it was like one step at a time, and we started with foodservice,” Lake said. “Foodservice is still growing for us, but we think the potential is in retail.”

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.

“The crop is looking really good, probably one of the best crops we’ve ever had,” Lake said. “Pack-out’s excellent this year.”

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.

“Pricing so far is a little less than last,” Lake said. “California had some product that was king of hanging in the market a little longer than last.”

Although demand for specialties is growing with the category, fingerlings can be a risky crop to grow.

“It costs three times as much to grow fingerlings than russets, and the trade expects the spuds to be perfect,” Lake said. “But that’s probably the biggest feather in our cap. Our quality is better than anybody’s.”

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.

“Specialties are something we’re very into — a good part of our business,” 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 Idaho’s specialty potatoes.

Many chefs buy specialty potatoes in their local markets, which are only available for a limited time, Odiorne said.

“They’re only available a limited time of the season, and this is a great way to expand the season,” Odiorne said.

Last year, fingerlings from Idaho were available August through May, he said.

“It’s a lot longer season than what you’d have locally,” Odiorne said.

“We’ve been doing a fair amount of reds, and have for years,” said Gary Garnand, president of Garnand Marketing LLC, Twin Falls. “They are asking for the reds, and starting to ask for the yellows.”

Wada Farms Marketing Group, Idaho Falls, is dabbling in specialties, said Kevin Stanger, vice president of sales and marketing.

“We are going a small amount of acreage of specialty crops that’ll be ready for harvest in September,” Stanger said late August.

Wilcox Fresh, however, stopped growing specialty potatoes this year.

“We usually grow some reds, a few fingerlings, but we didn’t this year,” said Lynn Wilcox, president of the Rexburg-based company.

This is the first year in six that the company hasn’t grown specialties, Wilcox said.

“We had a hard time giving away our red potatoes last year, so we got discouraged,” Wilcox said. “As luck would have it, we probably would have been happy to have them this year.”

The company still buys and repacks red potatoes for its customers.

“We’ve got some reds from California still now,” Wilcox said late August.



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