Ted Kreis readily says there’s no mistaking the Red River Valley for Idaho when it comes to marketing potatoes.
But North Dakota has the goods and a good reputation behind its red potatoes to make them a pretty easy sell, even if its budget is leaner, said Kreis, longtime marketing director of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association in East Grand Forks, Minn.
Kreis won’t disclose the association’s yearly budget, but said the organization works feverishly to keep Red River Valley potatoes — primarily red varieties — moving.
Kreis is a regular attendee at produce trade shows, and he says that’s an effective means to keep the region’s spuds top-of-mind among buyers.
“The trade show sets and advertising is all going to be coordinated — same theme, same graphics,” he said.
The association’s presence at trade shows goes beyond just Kreis, and that’s advantageous, said Kevin Olson, salesman with Becker, Minn.-based Ben Holmes Potato.
“They’re very active in promoting and tend to be effective because when they do go to the shows, they’ll always have two or three growers go with him,” Olson said.
Marketing focuses on the region’s red potatoes, but it also emphasizes an increased presence of yellow varieties, Kreis said, noting that yellows now comprise nearly 15% of members’ potato volume, compared to maybe 6% to 7% about seven years ago.
“It’s been a gradual but steady increase, driven by consumer demand for yellow potatoes,” he said.
Branding is more nuanced than it is for Idaho’s potato industry, Kreis said.
That’s because many retail customers put their own labels on bags, he said.
“But we have secondary logos available for bags.”
Kreis estimated more than 90% of all Red River Valley potatoes found at retail and in the foodservice sector are branded by the store or foodservice company, so there’s very little opportunity to promote Northern Plains as a “brand.”
“Kroger and Target, of course, want their own label,” he said.
Members say they accept such limitations. After all, the potatoes still sell.
“I’m not sure it’s taken off like folks had hoped,” said Eric Halverson, executive vice president of technology with Grand Forks, N.D.-based Black Gold Farms, discussing regional branding.
“The fact is, so much of what we grow goes into private-label bags, and it’s tough to get noticed that way.”
A lot of the Red River Valley spuds are sold to “the bigger marketing outfits,” so it’s difficult to “create a unique identity for the Red River Valley,” Halverson said.
However, the industry knows and appreciates the value of the valley and its brand, Halverson said.
“But to translate something to the consumers is bit more challenging,” he said.
The association works hard and gets good results within those limitations, said Randy Boushey, president and CEO of East Grand Forks-based A&L Potato Co.
“It‘s like the tire industry selling round,” he said. “They do a good job of what they do, but they’re marketing not for one individual but a region. They do make the trade shows and they’re active.”
The association also does important work beyond marketing, said Dave Moquist, president of O.C. Schulz & Sons Inc. in Crystal, N.D.
“A big part of what they do would be to finance our research, which would include variety development, research on diseases and what controls them,” Moquist said.
“Another big part of what they do is working with the National Potato Council. Since we’re on the line between North Dakota and Minnesota, they keep their hand on the pulse of both state legislatures.”
Paul Dolan, president of Grand Forks-based cooperative Associated Potato Growers Inc., said Kreis deserves considerable credit.
“Ted has done a good job, working with web pages and Facebook and other things and attending the trade shows,” Dolan said.