( Courtesy RPE Inc )

Organic potato sales out of Wisconsin got an early booster shot from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, although sales later leveled off, suppliers said.

“When COVID started and the shutdown started, sales quadrupled and growers could barely keep up. So some finished up about two weeks earlier than normal,” said Dana Rady, director of promotion, communication and consumer education with the Antigo-based Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association.

Prices, however, didn’t change significantly, said Rachel Leach, brand and category manager with Bancroft, Wis.-based RPE Inc.

“Overall, organic potatoes showed significant growth along with all potatoes in the beginning of the pandemic,” Atkinson-Leach said.

Things slowed down in time, though, she said.

“However, in more recent weeks, organic is under pacing total potato dollar growth and is hovering in the single digit range for total U.S. trends,” Atkinson-Leach said.

Rosholt, Wis.-based grower-shipper Bushmans’ Inc. also saw “good velocity on the organic side” in retail stores at the outset of the pandemic, said Mike Carter, business development director.

“I think people were just buying everything that they could, and we saw movement there,” he said. “On the foodservice side, same thing; there just wasn’t a lot of movement there. It’s still a big part of the portfolio.” 

There are ample volumes of organic potatoes for this season, said Rob Greenwood, RPE’s program development manager.

“RPE has a wide assortment of Wisconsin specialty items that will fill the needs of retailers who offer wide selection of SKUs (stock-keeping units) to their customers,” he said. 

“Organic potatoes will be available the second week of August and are offered in russet, red and gold varieties. Various pack sizes in all three are offered. More and more, consumers are turning to organics for their families and potatoes are no exception to this trend.”

COVID-19 has altered some of RPE’s plans for organics and specialty varieties, Greenwood said.

“Fingerling potatoes in all three colors and medleys will also be available the second week of August through RPE,” he said. 

“With a reduction in foodservice demand, RPE will be focused on offering fingerling promotions for retail.”

Organics continue to be a growing category at retail amid the pandemic, said Christine Lindner, marketing manager with Friesland, Wis.-based Alsum Farms & Produce. She said new-crop organic Wisconsin russet, red and gold potato harvest will begin on Aug. 3. 

“We started our organics program in 2000, and volume and sales dollars have experienced steady growth,” Lindner said. “Millennials are an audience that continues to redefine trends and embrace the organics potato category.”

Consumers need not consider organic potatoes to be a “safer” alternative to their conventional cousins during the pandemic, Carter said.

“I’d say 99.9% of potatoes that are sold at retail, we dig mechanically; they’re graded through an automated line,” he said. 

“Well over 99.9% of potatoes that are put in a bag are never touched by human hands.”

Plover, Wis.-based Okray Family Farms Inc. grows no organics, but the grower-shipper does have a Healthy Grown program that focuses on fewer inputs, said Dick Okray, president.

“It’s a lowered input, ecologically restoring project that kind of mirrors a lot of things people ... are trying to do (organically),” he said. 

“Slowly but surely, organic is making its way into the grocery stores, but I feel it’s a great marketing ploy and it’s been wonderful that growers are looking at alternatives, but it has a way of vilifying conventional ag.”

To some degree organics are pitted unnecessarily against conventional products, Okray said.

“Growers have a great basket of tools to use in combating diseases and pests without harming anything else in the environment,” he said. 

“We’re mirroring tracks with organic agriculture, but there’s resistance to try to unify agriculture as being one unified best agricultural practice. I don’t understand why there are forces that want to stratify our effort to provide good, healthy food using the best possible tools.” 


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