A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT

Originally printed in the October 2018 issue of Produce Business.

The outlook is good for high quality crops of red and yellow potatoes from the Red River Valley.

A high-quality, manageable volume of potatoes from the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota is forecasted for the 2018-19 season, and growers and shippers here are encouraging retail and foodservice buyers to compare their fresh red and yellow potatoes to all others produced in any other growing area in the country.

The Red River Valley is the nation’s leading producer of red potatoes and is emerging as a leader in yellow potato production. Growers claim their annual harvest is unparalleled in quality, color, texture and taste. Multitudes of retail and foodservice buyers appear to agree about the superior quality, as they look forward each season to the new crop.

With more than 250 growers producing more than 40 million hundredweight (cwt.) per year, an estimated 17 percent goes to the fresh market. The region is the third largest potato-producing area in the nation, according to the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association (NPPGA), based in East Grand Forks, MN.

The colorful spuds reaching the fresh market result from unique growing conditions. The Red River Valley is the bottom of what was once a massive glacial lake. As the huge glacier plowed over the land, it deposited a layer of silt, clay, sand and rock that transformed into the valley’s rich black soil. This contributes to the brilliant hues of red potatoes, along with an increasing volume of yellow spud varieties. The texture and smoothness of these potatoes are an added bonus for consumers.

In the Red River Valley, yellow potato production increased four-fold during the past 10 years. Overall, yellow volume comprises about 16 percent of the total, according to Ted Kreis, marketing and communications director for the NPPGA. “We can never lose sight of our identity as the nation’s leader in red potato production, but we certainly need to let it be known we are a great source for yellow potatoes, too.”

Paul Dolan, general manager of Associated Potato Growers Inc. (APGI), Grand Forks, ND, agrees. This grower-owned cooperative is said to be the largest volume shipper in the valley. Although this season’s plantings are about the same as last season, Dolan said the overall trend has shown an increase in the yellow potato plantings, but it has not been without additional challenges. “Yellow varieties are more sensitive, have thinner skin, and they don’t take the stress as well when facing adverse weather conditions. We’re always looking for new yellow varieties unique to our growing area that provide better long-term storage and better grade-out.”

“We’re looking for that elusive yellow variety that stores better,” says Dave Moquist, owner of O.C. Schultz & Sons, Crystal, ND. “Yellow demand has been increasing every year, and we run out too soon.”

In general, shippers in the region concur that this year’s red and yellow crops should be more manageable, following a year that produced near-record volume. The lack of moisture on this largely non-irrigated crop has reduced overall yields. At the same time, “Varieties are sizing up better than I thought,” reports Greg Hall, owner of Hoople, ND-based J.G. Hall & Sons.

Meanwhile, because of the unusually dry year the Red River Valley growers have faced, some of the fresh potato volume will be harvested from irrigated land, a practice that has been less traditional.

Black Gold Farms, based in Grand Forks, ND, has expanded its offerings to include potatoes that have been harvested from irrigated ground. Keith Groven, Black Gold Farms fresh sales manager, notes, “We’ve seen a lot of variables during the past few years, specifically due to moisture. We made a decision a few years ago to really look at what we can control. Based on our history in the Valley, we know moisture control is critical to success. Selecting irrigated ground has been well worth it, and this year was absolutely a prime example with the dry growing season that we had.”

Other shippers agree that less rain during this year’s growing season has resulted in reduced yields, but good quality from a crop, which will still provide plentiful volume for retailers and foodservice and a good outcome.

PACKAGING OPTIONS, ORGANICS

Buyers can also be assured these exceptional spuds will be offered in a wide variety of packaging options from most shippers, which include brand-name and private-label.

Aside from the traditional 3-, 4-, and 5-pound consumer bag offerings, NoKota Packers, Buxton, ND, markets part of its crop through San Francisco-based Fresh Solutions Network LLC, which also offers a line of convenience, gourmet and fresh-cut potato products. “Steamables are becoming increasingly popular,” reports Carissa Olsen, chief operating officer of NoKota Packers. “They are the best microwavable packs on the market.”

At the NoKota headquarters in Buxton, the company has installed new software, Fusionware, to stay ahead of its competition. Olsen explains Fusionware “is more produce-friendly and more streamlined for tracking sales and trucks. It provides increased accuracy in traceability and provides more convenience off-site.”

Featuring packaging options of all sizes, Associated Potato Growers claims to offer quality standards that set it apart from the competition. APGI’s Dolan notes, “We are the only company in the Valley that is now 100-percent GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified.” He explains all 15 of APGI’s growers have completed this intensive and expensive process, which ranks at the top of food safety compliance certifications.

Also unique to Associated Potato Growers is its recent addition of organic product. The only shipper in the Red River Valley to offer organic potatoes at this point, the co-op planted 50 acres this year after a successful test plot last season.

A common trait to most of the fresh potato producers in the valley is growing their crop on dry land. The unirrigated product “is a key to producing a tastier potato,” says Dolan. J.G.
Greg Hall notes, “Dryland potatoes have more solids and result in a better flavor.”

Retail and foodservice buyers agree. Russ Davis Wholesale is a Wadena, MN-based supplier for retail, with five distribution centers in three states. Stephanie Sands, a potato buyer and category manager based in the Russ Davis Inver Grove Heights, MN, location, stresses Red River Valley potatoes are superior to much of the competition. “They have a nice color, good texture, and great flavor.” She also emphasizes, “We want to give the customers what they ask for. Consumers strongly prefer the Red River Valley potato. And I like working with the shippers in the Valley.” She notes shippers make an extra effort to put up a consistent, attractive pack.

Affiliated Foods Midwest, based in Norfolk, NE, supplies more than 800 stores in the 16-state Midwest region. Jason Anderson, produce director for Affiliated Foods, says in addition to its freight advantage because of its location in the Upper Midwest, the Red River Valley provides other pluses. “We just really enjoy the color and clarity of the product. They hit the quality market we are looking for.”

POTATO PROMOTIONS ENCOURAGED

Good, promotable volume is already being welcomed by retailers as this season begins to peak. Northern Plains Potato Growers’ Kreis says the region’s shippers generally set up their own promotions directly with retailers, but he emphasizes the association is available with any assistance to help increase sales at retail and foodservice. He is optimistic the transportation shortage experienced last season will not impede good volume reaching the market in a timely matter.

The Red River Valley group maintains presence at trade shows and is exhibiting again at the annual Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit in Orlando this year. Kreis and area grower-shippers also will have a booth at the New York Produce Show and Conference in December.

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