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Published February 21, 2013, 01:18 PM

Spuds on offense

International Crops Expo speaker says U.S. potato industry is no longer on the defensive.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

After years of defending its product against critics, the U.S. potato industry has gone on the offensive, an industry official says.

“We went through 10 years of negative publicity,” including the controversial Atkins Diet, which focused on reducing carbohydrates, says Ritchey Toevs, an Aberdeen, Idaho, grower and co-chairman of the U.S. Potato Board’s international marketing committee. The Denver-based Potato Board is the nation’s potato marketing organization.

“We have an offensive game plan,” he says.

Toevs spoke Feb. 20 at the International Crop Expo in Grand Forks, N.D. The two-day show ended Feb. 21.

More than 5,000 people and roughly 200 exhibitors attended the annual event, which was sponsored by small grain, soybean and potato groups.

Marketing potatoes successfully isn’t chance or luck, Toevs says. “It’s about developing a game plan that’s successful.”

Increasing market access to foreign consumers is part of that plan.

For instance, U.S. seed potatoes are going to Egypt this year, and Vietnam is a fast-growing market for U.S. fresh potatoes.

Efforts also continue to expand sales of U.S. spuds to Mexico, he says.

Domestically, the U.S. potato industry keeps working to better understand consumers.

The industry has created “Linda,” a composite consumer who represents about 40 percent of fresh potato sales, and developed a marketing campaign meant to appeal to her. Linda, according to the U.S. Potato Board, is a woman, 25 to 54 years old, with children under the age of 18 living at home.

The campaign divides the calendar year into five distinct marketing periods. One is the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season.

Young adults, 18 to 24 years old and living at home, are a growing market for spuds, Toevs says.

The potato industry continues to stress the nutritional value of potatoes.

“People are still very interested in the health benefits,” he says. “We need to continue to refine that message.”

More innovation

Don Ladhoff, who leads the retail programs of the U.S. Potato Board, also spoke Feb. 20. He talked about his work with supermarkets to increase potatoes’ appeal to consumers.

So-called “petite” potatoes are increasingly popular with shoppers. “There’s big interest in little potatoes,” he says.

Food retailers need to build on that to increase consumer interest in other potato products.

Consumers also are increasingly interested in locally produced food, which creates opportunities for the potato industry, he says.

Retailers, for their part, want to see more innovation in potato products, with “new varieties, tastes and textures.”

Another trend is the growing number of supermarkets and supermarket chains hiring registered dietitians to work with customers, often through social media, Ladhoff says.

Potatoes, which have high nutritional value, can benefit from that, he says.

The potato industry is working with registered dietitians to encourage potato consumption.

Unusual days in Congress

John Keeling, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Potato Council, also was on the event agenda.

The National Potato Council advocates for U.S. potato growers on federal legislative, regulatory, environmental and trade issues.

Keeling says his group is having a more difficult time than usual presenting its arguments on key issues to lawmakers.

Congress has gotten away from its normal way of doing things, leaving Congressional committees, including the Senate and House ag committees, with less influence in shaping legislation, he says.

Normally, groups such as the National Potato Council work with the ag committees to shape legislation.

“The regular order just doesn’t occur anymore,” he says. “It has pretty serious consequences for what we’re trying to work on.”

But Keeling is optimistic that the next farm bill will include funding for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative. The program, established in the 2008 farm bill, provides research money for potatoes and other specialty crops.

“I think that before it’s all over, we’ll get the SCRI funding back,” Keeling says.

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