The red potato leader is diversifying into yellows.
Originally printed in the October 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Centuries ago, a glacial lake straddling the border between Minnesota and North Dakota dried up, creating a valley with extraordinarily rich soil particularly suited to potato production. In more modern times, growers in the Red River Valley have used this ground to develop a reputation for the finest red potatoes in the land.
In fact, the Red River Valley is the nation’s leading producer of red potatoes and the growers’ association claims the region as “The Idaho of Red Potatoes.”
“When this lake drained, it left behind the nearly flat valley and some of the richest soil in the world,” says Carissa Olson, president and chief executive of NoKota Packers Inc., Buxton, ND, which has been packing and shipping red potatoes from the Red River Valley since 1979.
The harvest from this rural area in the northern end of the Heartland is shipped to major metropolitan areas throughout the eastern half of the U.S.
“We do not have a large local market; we do not have many large metropolitan areas next to us,” says David Moquist, secretary-treasurer of O.C. Schulz & Sons, Crystal, ND. “But our quality and flavor speak for themselves and sell themselves.”
O.C. Schulz has been growing, washing and packing in their own shed, and shipping its red and yellow potatoes from the family farm for more than half a century. Moquist adds the majority of fresh potatoes grown in the Red River Valley are dryland without irrigation, “so they are grown naturally.”
Nationally, only around 7% or 8% of the potatoes harvested are red varieties, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics. But in the Red River Valley, which produces around 40% of all the reds in the country, nearly 20% of Minnesota’s harvest is red potatoes and in North Dakota, it is closer to 25%.
Offering The Right Mix
Although the region leads the nation in red potatoes, some traditional red potato growers in the region are branching out to include other varieties, especially the popular yellow varieties. Olson says NoKota will be offering some yellows this season, “and will be determining what the right mix of offering two colors will be going forward.”
NoKota represents a significant number of Red River Valley growers who have added yellow potatoes over the last decade and the region hopes to build a reputation for yellows to go with its position as the premier source of red potatoes.
“Consumers continue to move to yellow variety potatoes at the expense of reds and russets,” says Ted Kreis, marketing and communications director for Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, E. Grand Forks, MN. “Red potatoes are by far the most popular type in the Northern Plains because of consumers’ familiarity to Red River Valley red potatoes and their great taste and versatility.”
Nationally, yellow varieties remain in the low to middle single digits of potatoes — where russets still rule — but the share is higher in the fresh market, and they are trending.
The Northern Plains Potato Growers, formed after World War II, represents 200 growers in the Red River Valley region of Minnesota, North Dakota and eastern Montana, and is one of the country’s leading sources of red potatoes and a major source of other varieties for fried and chip potatoes. There are two potato chip manufacturers in the two-state area, and three major fry processors. In total, as much as 65% of the harvest from the Northern Plains is processed for fries at the Cavendish Farms, J.R. Simplot or Lamb Weston facilities; and around 12% is processed for potato chips. Another 10% goes to the seed market, and both North Dakota and Minnesota are among the top seven producers of potatoes for seed in the country.
The group plays a leading role in promotion of the Red River Valley. “We buy advertising in all the major trade pubs, with more and more of our ad dollars going to the digital side,” Kreis says. “A new website and promotional video are also in the works.” The association was scheduled to attend the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Fresh Summit, which has been canceled for 2021.
It Pays to Display Prominently
The reds, yellows, and russets harvested from the Red River Valley are shipped east over a long season that extends from late summer through May or June.
Potatoes are a high profit, durable produce item, and should be displayed prominently, Kreis recommends, because they also complement the purchase of other grocery and produce.
Per capita potato consumption is down from a peak of 47 pounds at the turn of the century to a little over 30 pounds last year. But that still leaves us eating 10 billion pounds of fresh potatoes a year, give or take a plate or two of the mashed delectable.
Because the weather did not cooperate this year, the supply of Red River Valley potatoes will be a bit lighter than might have been.
“We expect the Red River Valley crop to be down around 20% this year because of the drought conditions this summer,” says Kreis. “Look for a larger size profile, with B size and smaller being less abundant.”
“The past two years have been a struggle,” adds Olson. “Due to harvest conditions in 2019, we had a short crop, so when COVID hit in the spring of 2020, we were almost done shipping. That was good, as our employee count goes down considerably, so it made it easier to keep our people social distanced and safe at work.”
Then 2021 brought another difficult season with drought conditions throughout the spring and summer. “While many of the areas are seeing better yields than expected, we have multiple acres that will be below average in yield,” Olson says. “The quality does look good overall, so that is a plus.”
In the case of Red River Valley potatoes, the growers have a tradition of pride in the fruits of the rich soil they work.
“Focusing on our motto — Quality, Integrity and Service — has allowed us to continue in this industry,” says Olson. “We strive to bring a quality product to the marketplace by maintaining integrity and providing unbeatable service. The ability to continue to be innovative and being willing to change with industry needs is also a key component.”