Update: Red River Valley Potatoes

Red River Valley Potatoes

Devastating weather poses challenges that growers are wading through.

The multitude of buyers and consumers who enjoy the famous fresh potatoes from the Red River Valley of North Dakota will find that the potatoes’ availability will be less plentiful this season, as devastating weather, especially in the northern areas of the growing region, has reduced the crop significantly. Growers and shippers predict both volume and the length of the shipping season will be shortened.

Growers in some areas of the Red River Valley and Minnesota were bombarded with double the amount of rainfall they normally receive during the growing season, and others were victims of severe hailstorms in July and August. One hailstorm in northeast North Dakota in late July was devastating, with baseball-size hail that lasted more than 30 minutes, reports Ted Kreis, marketing and communications director for the East Grand Forks, MN-based Northern Plains Potato Growers Association (NPPGA). Continual high winds and relentless heavy rains pounding some fields and leaving standing water intensified the problems.

Overall, losses are estimated to be at least 30 percent, says Paul Dolan, president of Associated Potato Growers Inc. in Grand Forks, ND. The rains hit hardest in the northern parts of the valley, where Associated Potato Growers Inc. has two packing sheds. Damage was not nearly as bad south of Grand Forks. “What really helps us in a year like this is that we have 16 different growers in three different growing regions,” says Dolan.

Steve Tweten, president and sales manager of Buxton, ND-based Nokota Packers Inc., echoes that sentiment. “Our crop is spread through about a 120- to 140-mile area, so some of the fields look great.” Although rains in the region have been unprecedented, “Our growers in the south end will do well, with good quality and good yields.” Potatoes south of Grand Forks appeared to be in great shape.

Some of the growers who plant the majority of their acreage in the northernmost parts of the valley took bigger hits. “It’s as bad as I remember — ever,” says Dave Moquist, owner of Crystal, ND-based O.C. Schulz & Sons, Inc. “At best, we will have half a crop.” At the same time, with what is left, “We hope to supply our customers with good quality.”

“I’ve been doing this my whole life, and I’ve never seen it this bad,” notes Randy Boushey of A & L Potato Company Inc., East Grand Forks, MN. Most of A & L’s crop lies in the northern region of the valley. “We may have 25 to 30 percent of our normal volume,” he predicts, adding the company will probably have to obtain product from other regions to meet customer needs.

The Red River Valley historically has been the largest red potato shipping area in the country, but the devastating weather factors may change that for the 2016-17 shipping season. Some were able to extend shipping into July this year, but most predict they will probably be out of this season’s product by late May or early June of 2017.

Quality, Flavor Remain

Despite being victims of extreme Mother Nature conditions this summer, growers and shippers of the famous Red River Valley red and yellow potatoes maintain spuds from this region are still unparalleled in color, texture and taste.

Marketers invite retail and foodservice buyers to compare their fresh red potatoes to all others produced in any other growing area in the country. A multitude of buyers appears to agree about their 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, potatoes grown in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota are used for fresh, chips, seed and processing. Of that total, an estimated 17 percent goes to the fresh market. The region is the third-largest potato-producing area in the nation, according to NPPGA.

“What really helps us in a year like this is that we have 16 different growers in three different growing regions.”

— Paul Dolan, Associated Potato Growers Inc.

The colorful spuds that reach the fresh market result from growing conditions that are unique to anywhere else in the world. The remnants of what used to be a mammoth glacial lake, the rich black loamy soil of the Red River Valley contributes to the brilliant hues of Red potatoes, along with an increasing volume of yellow spud varieties. The texture and smooth skin of these potatoes are added bonuses for the consumer.

Although small compared to Russets, which account for more than half of the dollars spent in the retail category, Red potatoes are gaining market share, according to NPPGA’s Kreis. Nielsen Scantrack 2015 data shows Red potatoes account for 18 percent of the fresh market, which has steadily risen from 15.2 percent in 2011.

Also noteworthy is the rise in popularity of yellow-flesh potatoes. Five years ago, yellows accounted for only about 4 percent of the fresh total. Today, estimates show that figure has risen to 7.7 percent. Luckily for buyers, the Red River Valley has both reds and yellows, and several area growers report they have increased their yellow plantings to keep up with demand.

Associated Potato Growers, a cooperative, is reported as the largest packer in the Red River Valley and has gradually been increasing its plantings of yellow varieties. Dolan reports the organization’s yellow-planted acreage was up 30 percent this year. However, in spite of that increase, actual harvested volume will probably be about the same as last year because of the losses from the heavy rains. While reds still comprise the majority of shipments, yellows are now about 7 percent of the cooperative’s total volume.

In general, shippers in the region maintain they will still have potatoes for their customers in spite of the reduced volume. Nokota Packers’ Steve Tweten says, “We will still have good potatoes, and the Red River Valley still has the best reds.”

“Overall, demand in the red category is increasing. We can get a premium because we still have a superior potato.”

— Randy Boushey, A & L Potato

Aside from its 3-, 4-, and 5-pound consumer bag offerings, Nokota Packers also markets part of its crop through Fresh Solutions Network, LLC. Fresh Solutions provides marketing support and category data analysis among its services. In addition to the traditional retail, poly-bagged options, Fresh Solutions offers a line of convenience, gourmet, and fresh-cut potato products.

Superior Quality

“Overall, demand in the red category is increasing,” says A & L Potato’s Boushey. And, despite of the excessive moisture, “We can get a premium because we still have a superior potato.”

At Associated Potato Growers, Dolan notes the fresh potato producers grow their crop on dry land, which is key to producing a tastier product. Excessive moisture in some fields this year is not expected to affect overall flavor.

“There is a lot of irrigated red potatoes, but we’re probably one of the few areas that doesn’t irrigate. The reds coming out of other areas in Minnesota (Big Lake and Long Prairie) and the South are irrigated,” says Dolan.

Russ Davis Wholesale is a Wadena, MN-based supplier for retail, with five distribution centers in three states. Stephanie Sands, potato buyer and category manager, based in the Russ Davis Inver Grove Heights, MN location, also affirms Red River Valley potatoes are superior to much of their competition. “I like working with the shippers in the valley,” says Sands. She says they go to an put in effort to offer a consistent, attractive pack, even with the additional challenges this year.

“They have a nice color, good texture and great flavor.” Sands also emphasizes that, “We want to give the customers what they ask for. Consumers strongly prefer the Red River Valley potato.”

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

Standing Out From The Competition

Faced with the common challenges shippers face this year from the fallout caused by the hostile weather conditions during growing, Red River Valley shippers point out what stands them apart from their competition.

“We only do our own potatoes, so we know exactly what’s out there and can have more control over the product,” explains Greg Hall, owner of Hoople, ND-based J.G. Hall & Sons. “We upgraded our wash plant a few years ago and have state-of-the-art equipment.”

“We’re the grower, packer, and shipper and we can control our quality better,” says T.J. Hall, J.G. Hall & Sons’ sales manager. O.C. Schulz’s Moquist hastens to point out, that, even with the possibility this season of less than half the normal volume for the company, “a dry-land grown Red River Valley potato is still better than any other Red potato.”

Potato Promotions

Despite this unusual year, the region is in it for the long run, and it is important that Red River Valley potatoes remain foremost in the minds of buyers, emphasizes Northern Plains Potato Growers’ Kreis. He encourages sellers and buyers alike to maintain a long-term marketing program.

“Reds and yellows should all be in adequate supply through the first half of the shipping season and into February,” which results in good, promotable volume during that time period, he predicts.

For retail, the region’s shippers generally set up their own promotions but Kreis says the association can provide additional assistance as requested. “The best thing we can do for our shippers is to help get the best market returns for them,” he notes.

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 exhibited at the Midwest Produce Expo and will have a booth at the New York Produce Show and Conference in December. The association also has an advertising program directed toward retailers, “letting them know that consumers are turning more to red and yellow potatoes than they have in the past — that they should be promoted more,” says Kreis.

What’s New In The Red River Valley?

Grand Forks, ND

Tim (T.J.) Johnstone has joined the sales staff, reports Paul Dolan, manager of the co-op, which operates from three locations in the Red River Valley. Johnstone’s extensive experience in the potato industry includes sales positions at Grafton, ND-based Campbell Farms, Potandon Produce LLC, and Eagle Eye Produce Inc., both based in Idaho Falls, ID.

“He knows the area and has experience with colored potato varieties,” emphasizes Dolan. “It’s been good having him on board.”

At Associated Potato Growers Inc.’s Grand Forks location, upgraded equipment includes a new potato polisher the company installed last summer. “It has allowed us to put out an even better product,” Dolan says.

Buxton, ND

The company may be handling a higher volume of smaller packaging this season as a result of the reduced crop volume. In addition to 3- and 5-pound bags, Nokota Packers also markets part of its crop through San Francisco-based Fresh Solutions Network LLC, according to Steve Tweten, president.

Food safety and sanitation remain in the forefront at Nokota Packers, and the company surpasses the specifications necessary to earn a superior score in the various audits, notes Mike Rerick, vice president of sales and marketing. “All of our farms are GAP (Good Agricultural Practices)-certified as well.”

J.G. HALL & SONS, Hoople, ND

T.J. Hall assumed the role of sales manager this season, reports owner Greg Hall. Hall has been an integral part of the operations for several years but has now taken over the management role. Jackson Hall, T.J.’s cousin, has returned to the company and will help with food safety compliance.

Grafton, ND

Joan Kerian joined the company this year after graduating from college with an engineering degree, according to president and owner James Kerian, who is Joan’s brother. Joan, James, and sister Mary are three of the third-generation members of the family-owned company, which was started by their grandfather in 1967 and will celebrate its 50th year in business in 2017.

The company continues to expand into specialized sizers for an increasing number of commodities, ranging from fruits and vegetables as small as Brussels sprouts to larger produce items such as cantaloupes. In the potato arena, offerings include sizers for mini-tubers. James Kerian explains the three primary advantages the Kerian machines give its customers are gentle handling, precision and simple designs. “We offer precision sizing down to as small as blueberries, and our simple machine designs are both rugged and affordable.”

East Grand Forks, MN

A refurbished potato line for more precise and accurate weighing and sizing was installed this year, according to Randy Boushey, co-owner. The upgraded potato line was designed specifically for A & L by Kerian Machines, Inc., Grafton, ND.