A growers association is running a new advertising campaign designed to get buyers to associate red potatoes with the Red River Valley.

“Thinking red potatoes?” asks the ad. “Think the Red River Valley,” it says.

The campaign, sponsored by East Grand Forks, Minn.-based Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, includes ads in national trade publications and trade show banners, said Ted Kreis, marketing and communications director.

However, the trick might be in getting buyers to think red potatoes to begin with. Red potatoes are still a niche product in some markets, said Dave Moquist, partner and sales manager, O.C. Schulz & Sons Inc., Crystal, N.D. It will take time to move them into the mainstream.

Red River Valley marketers hope retailer and foodservice buyers as well as consumers will start thinking more often of red potatoes as an alternative to russets for baking.

“In some cases, the consumer doesn’t think you can bake a red potato,” Moquist said. “For those of us who grew up eating red potatoes, we prefer the baked red. We know it tastes great and eats great.”

Large red potatoes, in particular, are good for baking, but Kreis said he doesn’t often see them in supermarkets.

“We’re trying to … educate consumers that you can bake red potatoes,” said Tom Campbell, co-owner and sales manager for Campbell Farms, Grafton, N.D. “It has a good potato taste and more moisture than a russet.”

Campbell Farms is challenging russets head on. This season, it’s offering a new 5-pound grab-and-bake bag of red bakers. The bag is mesh with film and features a handle on top. The film is printed with baking instructions and topping suggestions. Copy on the bag also compares the two types of potatoes and encourages consumers to skip russets.

“For moist flavor & 11% fewer calories … Choose Reds Over Russets!” it says on the front of the bag.

Campbell Farms also packs individually wrapped microwaveable 8-ounce red potatoes. They typically retail for 2 for $1, or from 79 to 99 cents each, Campbell said.

Demand for red potatoes is strong this season, said Mike Rerick, vice president of sales and marketing for NoKota Packers Inc., Buxton, N.D.

Prices for russet potatoes have a big effect on the demand for reds, he said. With russet prices higher than last year’s, Rerick said NoKota’s sales of red potatoes are strong this season.

On Sept. 27, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices for 50-pound cartons of U.S. No. 1 size A round red potatoes from the Red River Valley were at $10. Size Bs were priced at $15-16.

In comparison, the USDA reported that 50-pound cartons of size 100 U.S. No. 1 russet potatoes from the Upper Valley, Twin Falls-Burley District, Idaho, were priced at $9-10 on Sept. 27. A year earlier, on Sept. 28, 2009, 50-pound cartons of the same potatoes from the same district were at $6-6.50.

The increase in NoKota’s September shipments could be credited to lower russet prices but might also be due to the Sept. 1 addition of Rerick to help company president Steve Tweten with sales.

Kreis said red and yellow potatoes had been increasing their market share until last year when russets took back some of the market share because they were selling at very low prices.

“The consumer has been bombarded a little bit with the whole russet potato thing,” Moquist said. “They rediscovered reds with their excellent flavor and great culinary qualities.”

Both price and quality are important in the red potato market, said Rodney Olson, principle owner of shipper Ben Holmes Potato Co. Inc., Becker, Minn., and part owner of grower Peatland Reds, Gully, Minn.

To find marketing opportunities, Olson attends trade shows and participates in the Salt Lake City-based United Potato Growers of America. United Potato Growers has been particularly helpful, Olson said.

“It’s helped in terms of marketing and becoming more knowledgeable in other areas,” he said.

Tweten said he is looking forward to a good marketing year. NoKota customizes its services to best fit the needs of buyers, he said. For example, it packs in buyers’ own branded bags and works with retailers to set up holiday advertisements.

“We work with customers on what they need to have done,” Tweten said.

NoKota also promotes potatoes by attending trade shows and visiting customers. Rerick said the company is exploring new ways to market potatoes, including the possibility of using social media such as Facebook and LinkedIn to reach buyers. NoKota ships Red River Valley red potatoes to customers located in and east of the Rocky Mountain region.

Associated Potato Growers Inc., Grand Forks, N.D., deals primarily with wholesalers and brokers, so it doesn’t interact directly with many retail buyers, said Paul Dolan, general manager. The company does offer potato information and fliers for retailers to display in-store.

“We’re promoting ourselves through trade publications and trade shows like we always have been,” Kreis said.

Kreis said the association plans to participate in a new event this November, The New York Produce Show and Conference to be held in New York City. He said the association also continuously updates its website, redpotatoes.net.

Moquist participates in the association and relies on its red potato promotions to help sell Schulz & Sons’ crop. The grower-shipper also does some advertising and participates in trade shows, Moquist said.

He said the Denver-based U.S. Potato Board’s marketing is important for the industry.

“It’s tough for us as a family-run grower-shipper to effect a major change,” he said. “It takes all potato growers working together and the board to help create demand.”

Moquist said he’s seen good demand for red potatoes for the past few years. In terms of sizes, A-size is the majority of Schulz & Sons’ volume, and there haven’t been significant changes in demand for other sizes from its customers.

Dolan said he hasn’t seen recent major changes in red potato sales to retailers.

“We’re still a small part of the potato category, maybe 12% are red potatoes,” he said.

The most important tip for retailers is to rotate potatoes, Kreis said. Stock should be rotated daily to maintain good quality.

“Keep displays looking fresh and try to market potatoes by using secondary displays elsewhere or by cross-merchandising,” Kreis said.

Dolan said small displays with good rotation and limiting exposure to bright light can improve potato sales by maintaining quality. Too much light causes potato skins to turn green.

He also recommends storing potatoes that aren’t on display in a cool place so they will maintain quality longer. If retailers have refrigerated storage that can be kept at about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s ideal, he said.

Kreis agreed that about 50 to 55 degrees is optimal for potato storage but said they should not be stored at temperatures below 40 degrees. If they are too cold, their flavor can change. If the choices are to store at room temperature or refrigerate below 40 degrees, Kreis said keep them at room temperature.

Another recommendation from the association is to handle potatoes gently.

“They appear like they’re very hardy, but they can be bruised,” Kreis said.

The association’s website, redpotatoes.net, offers nine recommendations for handling and displaying potatoes at retail. The recommendations are available in poster form.