Wisconsin Potatoes Boast Advantages in its Region

Wisconsin Farming

Bagder State is the largest producer east of the Mississippi River.

If asked to name the top three things associated with Wisconsin, the Green Bay Packers and dairy products would probably be at the top of the list. Bratwurst, snowmobiles or beer might rank close behind. Wisconsin potato growers would like to see the day when potatoes are readily associated with the Badger State.

Trailing only Idaho and Washington, Wisconsin is the nation’s third-largest potato producer. The state typically harvests 25 million hundredweight (cwt.), or 2.5 billion pounds of potatoes from 63,000 acres, according to the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association Inc. (WPVGA), based in Antigo, WI. Acreage remains steady, reports executive director Tamas Houlihan, who adds that while Washington is the second-biggest producing state, 90 percent of its potatoes are used for French fries. “In terms of fresh stock, Wisconsin is probably No. 2 overall and No. 1 the east of the Mississippi River,” he says.

A cool northern climate, a rapid spring warm-up and sandy soil make Wisconsin an ideal place to grow a wide variety of potatoes, including Russets, Whites, Reds, Yellows, as well as specialty potatoes. Production is centered in central Wisconsin’s central sands region.

“Wisconsin offers the most varieties of potatoes in the United States,” says Houlihan. “Because of our location, we offer overnight delivery to virtually any market east of the Mississippi River.”

Fresh production, which has remained consistent in the past 25 years, typically accounts for around 45 percent of volume, up to 12 million cwt. or 1.2 billion pounds.

“Wisconsin potatoes are known for their consistent quality,” says Larry Alsum, president of Alsum Farms & Produce, which grows and ships from Friesland, WI. “Wisconsin not only has all the varieties other states have, but we grow more varieties than any state.”

While some growers begin harvesting in July, harvesting typically commences in mid-August, with the bulk of digging usually occurring in September. Potatoes normally finish harvesting in October before going into storage for distribution, which generally finishes during the summer. In terms of volume, potatoes are Wisconsin’s biggest crop.

Mike Carter, chief executive of Bushman’s Inc., located in Rosholt, WI, agrees. “I would put Wisconsin potatoes up against potatoes from any other state,” he says. “I would like to see more recognition for Wisconsin potatoes.”

Midwest Connection‬

Wisconsin’s Midwest location gives it a logistical advantage over other potato growing regions. It’s the largest producing state east of the Mississippi River, which gives it favorable access to some of the country’s largest markets.

Though Wisconsin grower-shippers distribute potatoes throughout the United States, its primary markets are east of the Mississippi River and the Midwest, as well as Wisconsin’s adjoining states — Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan. The state maintains a solid presence in the Southeast, and marketers regularly sell to customers in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, says Houlihan.

Because Wisconsin growers have a distinct freight advantage, the return to the farmer is higher, says Mark Finnessy, secretary of Okray Family Farms in Plover, WI.

That Midwest connection helps sales, says Roderick Gumz, co-owner of Gumz Muck Farms, headquartered in Endeavor, WI. “It’s a matter of where we are positioned, what we offer, and the timing and dynamics of the market,” he says. “We are fortunate in that we are in a location that the consumer values and are able to take advantage of that. We have some good growers, some good opportunities and good markets that will allow us to be sustainable in the future.”

Milwaukee, WI-based Roundy’s Supermarkets Inc., and its more than 150 Pick ‘n Save, Copps, Metro Market and Mariano’s retail banners in Wisconsin and Illinois, relies on Wisconsin’s potatoes and is likely one of the biggest customers of the state’s spuds, says Steve Jarzombek, vice president of produce merchandising for Mariano’s in Chicago.

Freight Savings

“Anyone who operates in the Midwest needs to have Wisconsin potatoes,” says Jarzombek. “We depend heavily on their supplies.” Wisconsin offers a consistent supply of all the leading varieties. “They do a great job and have really figured out how to store potatoes,” he explains. “The quality is consistent throughout the year.”

Wholesalers pass the freight savings onto their customers. Heartland Produce Co. distributes produce from Kenosha, WI, to retailers and foodservice distributors in Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and other areas of the Midwest. “We use a lot of Wisconsin potatoes,” says Mike Bettin, salesman. “Because they’re so local, it’s very easy to get product. There are lower transportation costs. It doesn’t take long to get here versus a couple of days from the West. Wisconsin potatoes are critical because customers can usually get product in a few hours.”

While Wisconsin potato growers expect to meet volume production goals, it has not been without its challenges. This past fall was very wet and offered unfavorable growing conditions. Better weather, however, prevailed during the summer, according to growers.

Maintaining an adequate labor force is another challenge. The labor shortage has hit rural Wisconsin and agricultural employers particularly hard. A 2015 survey conducted by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce showed labor was the top concern among employers. Up to 70 percent surveyed reported experiencing difficulty hiring employees compared to 53 percent in 2014.

“It’s very difficult for us to get the workers we need for the farming and packaging operations,” says Bushman’s Carter. “It’s more difficult than in the past.”

Alsum Farms uses high school and college students during the summer months, but experiences shortages in the fall, during its peak packing season. Alsum Farms works to meet the labor challenge by building its reputation as a good employer. It focuses on developing existing employees, promoting from within and providing opportunities for advancement.

Local Trading

One of the most encouraging trends in recent years has been the local movement. Carter points out that there are approximately 19 million people living in the Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN, and Milwaukee, WI, triangle — an area where consumers consider Wisconsin potatoes local.

Carter says the “buy local” movement has seen tremendous impact. “‘Buy local’ is good for consumers and growers,” he says. “It is almost as intriguing to consumers as buying organic. It reflects the fact consumers are more in tune with where their food comes from. Our biggest customers like the fact that we’re local.” Bushman’s’ packaging includes the words “Wisconsin Potatoes.”

Retailers are asking RPE Inc. to incorporate locally grown messages on bag designs. The Bancroft, WI-based grower-shipper has responded with state or regional call-outs, which are strategic and what customers demand, says Tim Huffcutt, marketing director. “The ‘buy local’ movement has been helping the sales of Wisconsin potatoes,” he says. “The movement continues to grow and flourish. Retailers understand consumers are more aware than ever about how food is sourced. Because families are more conscientious about food quality, they are seeking more answers about its origin.”

The smaller impact on the environment is important to many buyers, says Dana Rady, WPVGA’s director of promotion, communication and consumer education. “The lower carbon footprint really comes into play here,” she says. “When retailers buy Wisconsin potatoes, they are getting and providing a fresher product to their customers and supporting their local economies and their local growers who provide the products. This is very important in keeping strong communities and jobs.”

That local advantage is valued by shoppers.

“The consumer values locally grown,” says Gumz Muck Farms’ Gumz. “Sometimes, freight becomes an issue. We are closer to the market than much of our competition, which is farther west. Your footprint or impact on the environment is less when you have less transportation costs.”

Wholesalers also enjoy the local benefit.

“Locally grown is a big aspect in Wisconsin,” says Heartland Produce’s Bettin. “Shoppers want to support their local communities and the local state from which the product comes from. The advantage of Wisconsin potatoes is that they’re local and easy to get. They’re close by so when a buyer needs to react quickly, they can get product in at a moment’s notice as quickly as possible.”

Retail Promotions

In addition to call-outs on packaging, retailers are touting Wisconsin’s local potatoes through in-store signage and displays, as well as promoting the local angle as part of their advertisements.

Retailers enthusiastically promote Wisconsin potatoes, observes Bettin. “They do a very good job in merchandising Wisconsin potatoes,” he says. “There are big displays in stores. They are moving a lot of product.” Bettin says retailers carry a high quality of potatoes. “Wisconsin potatoes help them round out their departments,” he says.

As the most popular vegetable, potatoes are ideal for cross-merchandising. They pair well with meats, cheeses, butter, sour cream and other items. “There are, however, a lot of missed cross-merchandising opportunities,” says Carter. “I think specialty packs of potatoes and potatoes wrapped in foil for grilling would fly off the shelves if they were displayed with meats. Retailers can make it easy and convenient to pair the two up.”

The WPVGA spends $350,000 a year on promotions. It provides point-of-purchase materials to retailers, which are made available through Wisconsin suppliers. To assist stores in regularly erecting convenient displays, the association supplies material, including quarter-sized bins, posters and recipe tear pads. “These are great eye-catching displays for consumers to act on while they shop,” says Rady. “The quarter-sized bins are the perfect size for an end cap display, for example, which is also convenient for cross-promotions in stores.”

In its Potatoes Power Performance campaign, the association markets the state’s spuds by showcasing the many tasty and creative ways of preparing potatoes and how they can be used to help individuals prepare for — and recover from — physical activities.

In October, the WPVGA has scheduled its second yearly Wisconsin Potato Display Contest. This year, the association plans to award a Powered by Wisconsin Potatoes-themed 2016 Cub Cadet UTV (utility vehicle) to the store that displays Wisconsin potatoes the best. Displays must be active during the month and feature the state’s potatoes in creative ways. Deadline for photo submissions is Nov. 3, 2017. Last year, Trig’s in Rhinelander, WI, won first place.

Wide Product Portfolio

In addition to the growing interest in buying local, consumers are purchasing a wider variety of potatoes, including Russets, Whites, Reds, Yellows, Blues, Purples and Fingerlings.

“We are consistently working to provide new and exciting varieties of potatoes to our customers each year,” says RPE’s Huffcutt. RPE works from one of the leading varietal research efforts where agronomists review more than 250 varieties of potatoes a year in various growing locations throughout the country.

Russets remain the most popular variety. “They have, however, gone from 70 percent of the market to about 60 percent,” says Alsum Farms’ Alsum. “Their share of the market has been eroded by the increase in Yellow potatoes and mini varieties. Although Yellows make up a small percent of the market, their share has doubled in the past decade. This change is a result of listening to our consumers.”

Marketing organization Potatoes USA, Denver, recently conducted a survey to determine what percent of people often use different potato types. Russets came in 27 percent, Whites 26 percent, Reds 21 percent, Yellows 18 percent, Purples/Blues 10 percent and Petites and Fingerlings tied at 9 percent. WPVGA’s Houlihan says all varieties, including the specialties, are experiencing strong sales growth. Yellows and Reds are witnessing increases of 3 to 6 percent each. “They are growing exponentially in terms of percentage,” he says. “Reds are growing significantly more than Yellows.”

Retailers remain impressed by the state’s potato variety. “The mix is changing,” says Mariano’s’ Jarzombek. “In the past, everything was Russets and Reds. Today, Yellow and Gold potatoes are probably the strongest performers in the category in terms of growth. The Fingerlings and smaller potatoes are really seeing big gains in movement.”

The mix of products helps movement.

“The diversity of potatoes is attractive from the retail end because they can deal with one person and one place,” says Gumz Muck Farms’ Gumz, who grows Reds, which he supplies to other grower-shippers. “They don’t have to deal with sourcing from a number of people.”

New Variety Investments

Industry-funded research helps the Badger state’s growers remain competitive. In partnership with the University of Wisconsin, the WPVGA spends approximately $350,000 a year on research into new varieties and topics, including potato breeding, seed production, growing potatoes, protecting natural resources and managing pests.

On Jan. 24, 2017, the WPVGA announced its commitment to raise more than $5 million in the next 10 years to support the university’s program. WPGVA has been a financial partner of the university for many years. The partnership has produced a state-of-the-art seed potato farm, Lelah Starks Elite Foundation Seed Potato Farm in Rhinelander, WI, which employs leading scientists who test and develop new varieties.

The potato farms also supply growers with early generation seed potatoes. All potatoes grown on the farm originate in tissue culture in a laboratory on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Mini tubers produced from greenhouses plantlets are planted the following year to produce the first field crop. Those seed tubers are then either sold or multiplied for a second year in the field.

“Every year, we do extensive variety trials at three different research stations in Wisconsin,” says WPVGA’s Houlihan. “In new variety development, our Spud Pro program cleans-up seed potatoes and makes sure they’re free of diseases and viruses. If we hit a variety that’s really good, we want to develop seed quickly so we can release it to commercial growers.” About 10 percent of the potatoes grown in the state are for seed, which makes it one of the leading seed potato states.

Another area of research collaboration is the Potato and Vegetable Research Storage Facility in Hancock, WI. It was designed and built by growers to study the relationship between field management and storage practices of fresh produce, including potatoes, carrots, onions, beets, cabbage, squash and pumpkins. The facility demonstrates how Wisconsin growers continue to work with industry partners to invest in the future of agriculture, according to the WPVGA’s website.

Alsum says his company is always testing new varieties. Alsum Farms is expanding its Yellow varieties and developing one- or two-bite size Red and Yellow varieties.

Tapping Into Nillenials

Larry Alsum, president of Alsum Farms & Produce, Friesland, WI, foresees steady growth for Wisconsin potatoes as growers work to identify consumer trends, niches and opportunities.

Tim Huffcutt, marketing director for Bancroft, WI-based RPE, sees smaller bags and packaging trending upward and increasing traction for value-added products, including microwavable packs, flavor-added products and individually wrapped items.

While 5- and-10-pound bags of Russets still drive the potato category, consumers, particularly Millennials, are becoming more adventurous, driving sales of Purples and Fingerlings, says Mike Carter, chief executive of Bushman’s Inc., Rosholt, WI.

As consumers become more health conscious, more emphasis is placed on promoting potatoes’ health attributes. Potatoes are a good source of vitamin B6, potassium, vitamin C, manganese, niacin and dietary fiber.

“We have a great product and it’s time for us to get the word out about the health and nutrition value of potatoes,” says Mark Finnessy, secretary of Okray Family Farms in Plover, WI. “It’s time for farmers to educate consumers.”

Millennials’ preferences will continue to be a major focus. “They don’t plan too far ahead; they shop for one or two meals at a time,” says Finnessy.

Millennials love to explore, says “But, they don’t spend much time cooking,” he says. “They want their food fast and convenient.”