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Potatoes, a major crop in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota, are said to be "America's favorite vegetable." (Nick Nelson / Agweek)

Industry: Potatoes are a 'performance food'

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Potatoes, after being briefly replaced by broccoli, are once again ensconced as America's favorite vegetable. But the potato industry seeks to build on that popularity by positioning spuds as a highly nutritious "performance food" that can help athletes and Americans in general.

The campaign's catch phrase is, "Potatoes. Real food. Real performance. What are you eating?"

The campaign is "initially focused on athletes," said Blair Richardson, president and CEO Potatoes USA, the nation's potato marketing board. "But we're not trying to sell potatoes to athletes. We're trying to work with athletes to carry the positive nutritional message of the potato."

"Whether you're a father coaching your child's soccer team or a teacher trying to get through the day with 35 screaming kids or a farmer trying to take care of your crop," you can benefit from eating potatoes, he said.

Richardson spoke Feb. 20 in Grand Forks, N.D., on the first day of the two-day International Crop Expo, an annual farm show geared primarily to potatoes, small grains, soybeans and dry beans. Roughly 4,000 people had been expected to attend over the two days, though less-than-ideal travel conditions held down crowds.

John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO of the National Potato Council, also spoke Feb. 20.

Both Richardson and Keeling regularly attend the Crop Expo.

North Dakota and Minnesota are among the country's top potato producers. The Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota — where most of the two states' potato production occurs — is the nation's leading producer of red potatoes and the only region that produces in volume for the chip, fresh, seed and process markets

Though once ridiculed by critics who questioned potatoes' nutritional value, the popularity of spuds has rebounded nicely, in part because of the potato industry's educational and marketing efforts, Richardson said.

Not only is domestic demand for potatoes rising, the value of those potatoes is rising even faster. That reflects rising sales of processed potato products, the price of which is relatively higher than traditional tablestock potatoes, he said.

Much of that is because fewer consumers are buying large, multi-pound bags of potatoes, some of which ended up being thrown away, Richardson said.

U.S. potato exports continue to rise, too, increasing 175 percent in the past 20 years, he said. Today, about one in five rows of U.S. potatoes go overseas, with Japan, Canada and Mexico the leading markets.

And potatoes are found, in one form or another, in more than four of five U.S. restaurants. Chinese restaurants lead the list of eateries that most often don't have spuds, even though potatoes are highly popular in China, he said.

"The future is pretty bright for potatoes. A lot of good things are happening," Richardson said.

Even so, the potato industry continues to look for new and better ways of marketing its products, and one of them is the potato equals performance marketing campaign, he said.

"We're not a 'couch potato,' we're a performance fuel," with potatoes providing complex carbohydrates, fiber, potassium and Vitamin C, among other things, Richardson said. 

Washington perspective

Keeling leads the Washington, D.C.-based National Potato Council, which represents U.S potato growers on federal legislative, regulatory, environmental and trade issues.

The current political atmosphere in the nation's capital is confusing, he said.

"I can't understand it. A lot of people can't understand it," he said. "There's plenty to be critical of."

The recent federal government shutdown is an example of how the political process is failing to operate as it should, Keeling said.