Originally printed in the October 2020 issue of Produce Business.
The outlook is good for high-quality crops of red and yellow potatoes from North Dakota and Minnesota.
Optimistic predictions for an excellent crop of consistent volume of Red River Valley potatoes is gratifying news for the multitude of buyers and consumers who look forward to these famous fresh spuds. This forecast is even more welcome following last season’s heavy losses in the Valley’s central and southern growing regions resulting from devastating weather in the fall, creating fewer promotional opportunities for retailers.
Although some heavy rains drowned out an estimated 10-15% of the crop in June, most shippers agree the ideal growing conditions through most of the season created increased yields that should compensate for the loss and provide a plentiful crop, which will be embraced by buyers throughout the 2020-21 shipping season.
Growers and shippers in the Red River Valley invite retail and foodservice buyers to compare their fresh potatoes to all others produced in any growing area of the country — insisting they are unparalleled in color, texture and taste.
At least one retailer in the Midwest is on board. Affiliated Foods Midwest, based in Norfolk, NE, supplies more than 800 stores in the 16-state Midwestern 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 advantages. “We just really enjoy the color and clarity of the product. They hit the quality market we are looking for.”
The Red River Valley is the nation’s leading producer of red potatoes and has emerged as a leader in yellow potato production. With about 200 growers producing more than 40 million hundredweight (cwt) per year, an estimated 17% 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.
“We just really enjoy the color and clarity of the product. They hit the quality market we are looking for.”— Jason Anderson, Affiliated Foods
In the Red River Valley, yellow potato production increased four-fold during the past 10 years. Overall, yellow volume now comprises about 20% 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.”
Dave Moquist, owner of O.C. Schulz & Sons, Crystal, ND, agrees. “The yellow demand continues to be kind of amazing,” he notes. “We have no issues moving our yellows, and the market remains fairly strong.” O.C. Schulz planted 30% of its crop in yellow potatoes this year. “We’re always looking for a new yellow variety that will extend our storage season through the winter.”
Yellow demand continues for Associated Potato Growers Inc. (APGI), Grand Forks, ND, reportedly the largest-volume shipper in the Red River Valley. And this season, the crop of both yellows and reds will be high quality, according to chief executive officer Mike Torgerson. “Although heavy rains early on caused some damage, ideal conditions after that produced better volume than average. We’ll be able to supply the market with plenty of both.”
“We’ve got good quality, good tonnage, and we’re looking forward to a good year,” agrees Mike Rerick, sales manager at Buxton, ND-based NoKota Packers, Inc. He adds the company will market a crop with a slight acreage increase.
Overall, Red River Valley potatoes still maintain the advantages of bright color, texture, and flavor, partly because the majority of their acreage is produced on dry land. “Our non-irrigated reds and yellows have higher solids than irrigated, so they are creamier and more full-flavored,” emphasizes Casey Folson, of Folson Farms, East Grand Forks, MN. “I’m a firm believer there are no potatoes with better flavor and texture than those grown in the Red River Valley.”
According to shippers, the buyers can also be assured these exceptional spuds will be offered in a wide variety of packaging options, which include brand-name and private labeling.
Offering packaging options of all sizes, Associated Potato Growers maintains additional quality standards, which helps the company stand apart from competition. APGI’s Torgerson says, “We are now 100% Harmonized GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) Certified.” He explains that all 17 of APGI’s growers and its three wash plants have completed this intensive and expensive process, which ranks at the top of all food safety compliance certifications.
“Stores, and consumers in general, want to have that traceability,” Torgerson reiterates. “We’re also Primus-certified, and we take pride in our product and the consistent quality we put in our packs.”
Aside from the traditional 3, 4, and 5-lb consumer bag options, NoKota Packers 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 still very popular,” reports Carissa Olsen, chief executive officer of NoKota Packers. Packed in the ‘Side Delights’ label, “They are the best microwavable packs on the market.”
Standing apart from the competition can be maintained when companies continue to provide unwavering, high quality in a variety of packaging sizes that buyers can count on. Although Hoople, ND-based H&S FreshPak is in only its fourth season of operation, the young company is considered a well-established packer because of its affiliation with longtime potato grower-shippers J.G. Hall & Sons, Hoople, ND, and O.C. Schulz. “H&S has fit well into our systems,” emphasizes Andy Moquist, co-manager and salesman for H&S. “We all work well together to help move our product and provide the best service to our customers.”
Additionally he says several major packingshed upgrades at H&S since its opening, including the modernization of its potato storage units this season, have added to the efficiency of its distribution system. “Both of our families have been in the business since the 1950s,” adds H&S FreshPak’s T J Hall, co-manager and salesman. “We fit together very well. And we are only selling our own product, without outside growers, so we can control more consistent quality.”
Folson Farms maintains a similar philosophy. “We’re a family-owned company that manages our potatoes from the seed all the way to the semi-trailer,” says Casey Folson. “We have great continuity between our farm and the wash plant. We have more attention to detail, every step of the way.”
“Red River Valley potatoes are back,” adds NPPGA’s Ted Kreis, encouraging retailers to remind consumers of the arrival of these unique, colorful, and tasty treats. “Promote what your customers are looking for — Red River Valley Reds. And we have outstanding yellow potatoes, too!”