Tom Karst, national editor
Tom Karst, national editor
Attending the annual meeting of Potatoes USA in Denver, I’m struck again by the tension between building demand and managing supply for fresh produce.
 
On one hand, Mark Klompien, CEO of United Potato Growers of America, spoke about supply.
 
Klompien said rising trends for potato yields, averaging about 1% per year, must be considered when growers plant their next crop. Over a five-year period, higher average yields would add up to the output of 35,000 or 40,000 acres, he said.
 
United Potato Growers of America has a sophisticated modeling projection about prospective acreage. Based on early projections, he said there is a potential for a 3% increase in acreage. More recent data points to flat acreage in 2017 compared with 2016, he said.
 
Potato growers I talked with said low profitability in other crops — such as wheat, alfalfa, barley, corn — doesn’t give growers a lot of great options.
 
“We’re hopeful that through education, correct assessment of market data, growers can adjust supply to achieve profitable levels,” Klompien said in his remarks at the annual meeting.
 
The cooperative itself won’t seek to limit acreage.
 
Under the terms of a 2015 lawsuit settlement against the cooperative, United Potato Growers of America agreed to not engage in preplanting acreage management for seven years. While the quickest and easiest way to profitability would be to mandate acreage cuts, that approach isn’t in the realm of the possible.
 
At the same time that growers fret over acreage, supply and profitability, Potatoes USA is pursuing a new marketing approach that will stress the performance health benefit of spuds. The group’s mission is to strengthen demand for U.S. potatoes, and the new campaign is right in their wheelhouse.
 
The 200 or so attendees of the meeting were pleased Potatoes USA is on the offensive about the benefits of potatoes.
 
I think the approach will pay off, building the image of the vegetable and changing the media conversation.
 
Blair Richardson, president and CEO of Potatoes USA, said the performance power of potatoes message is beginning to take shape, with more details to be revealed over the next year. 
 
Consumers don’t know the health benefits of potatoes, he said. They are confused by media sources like Dr. Oz who one week may say potatoes are bad for you and then in another month may say they are healthy, he said.
 
“Most consumers know very little about what we take so seriously,” he said. “Most consumers if they know anything about potatoes, they think (potatoes) might be something that makes you fat,” he said.
 
Whether french fries, potato chips or baked potatoes, all forms of potatoes have been used as a bad guy for a long time, Richardson said.
 
It will be fascinating to see how successful this just-beginning initiative will be in recasting the image of the potato.
 
A memorable luncheon speaker at the show was Paul Mobley, photographer of the book “American Farmer: Portraits from the Heartland.” 
 
As a projector showed highlights from the thousands of pictures that he took of farmers and farm families, Mobley told straight-from-the-heart stories from his four-year quest of photographing hundreds of farmers in 37 states and connecting with many of them on a personal level.
 
For industry groups looking for a speaker that “gets” farmers, I couldn’t recommend Mobley more.
 
Tom Karst is The Packer’s national editor. E-mail him at tkarst@farmjournal.com.
 
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