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Washington State Potato Commission bringing excitement to the industry

There are three primary roles the Washington State Potato Commission plays in assisting its potato growers, but according to Chris Voigt, executive director of the Moses Lake, WA-based organization, coordinating and funding potato research is the most important work it does. 

“We dedicate over $1 million dollars to potato research and our investment has made us the state with the highest yields and a consistent high quality,” he said. “Another important role is our promotional work with our international and domestic customers. We also invest heavily in telling the ag story to the public through our Washington Grown program. And the third role we play is being the voice for our potato community with state and federal agencies and legislators.” 

The recent potato crops have looked great, and although Voigt noted it was a strange growing season, the commission was pleasantly surprised at the yields and quality of the crop. 

IMG 4365The Washington State Potato Commission plays a key role in assisting its potato growers by coordinating and funding potato research, in addition to other important work.“The growing season started out abnormally cold and wet and then immediately went to hot, followed by moderate temperatures near the end of the growing season,” he said. “The quality of spuds are outstanding. Yields are about average. But please remember that average for us is still 40 percent higher than the U.S. average. We produce more potatoes on an acre of ground than anywhere else in the world.”

Still, the profit margins are very thin these days so it’s critically important that growers manage their farms very efficiently. One of the biggest trends the commission is seeing in fresh potatoes is increased exports to the Pacific Rim for conversion of those potatoes into potato chips. 

“Countries in the Pacific Rim struggle to find enough local potatoes that are high enough in quality to make into potato chips so we are seeing good growth in this market segment,” Voigt said. “Continued growth in demand for domestic and international frozen potato products is putting stress on the fresh potato supply. As potato processing capacity expands, so does the need for raw product. But ground suitable for potatoes is a limiting factor. Processors are now having to approach fresh potato grounds looking to convert their acres to processing potatoes.”

Brandy Tucker, marketing manager for the organization, said it recently ran a competition in the Seattle area called Spud Masters, where for a week, folks had a chance to nominate their favorite potato dish at their favorite restaurant. 

“After that week ended, everyone had a chance to go in and vote for their favorites,” she said. “We had categories ranging from cheap eats and breakfast styles to ethnic potato dishes and high-end sides. We had over 150 restaurants that participated and had fun with the program. There was a lot of social media buzz.”

The winning restaurant was Napkin Friends, a well-known food truck that travels from Seattle to Bellevue, which specializes in Potato Latke sandwiches. The win got them a premiere ad in the Seattle Met Magazine and the person that nominated them won a $250 gift certificate to eat as many Latke Sandwiches as possible. 

The campaign reached more than 33,000 people on social media.

When it comes to in-store marketing, Tucker said cross merchandising in the meat department has always increased sales of potatoes and a larger selection of potato products is also necessary to maximize retails sales.  

As far as packaging, Voigt said the 10-pound poly bag used to be the king of desired potato packaging, but he is seeing much stronger interest in smaller packages. 

“Five- and three-pound packs are much more common these days,” he said. “Strong interest continues for small packages of small or ‘baby’ potatoes. Consumers don’t have a lot of time any more to cook, so small potatoes are perfect for them. They cook up much faster than larger potatoes.”  

Looking ahead to 2018, the commission will continue its focus on highlighting the nutrition of potatoes — especially school nutrition and athleticism.

“If we can get the kids in the schools making healthy choices or have healthy delicious potato choices in the school breakfast and lunch program, that’s a step in the right direction,” Voigt said.

“We hope to work with some school lunch program directors to get some new items on the menu with our versatile spud. We have talked to marathon runners and cyclists about how they prepare for an event and many of them have said they eat potatoes before and during. They give them the fuel and energy to keep going, so if we can get that message out there and get kids excited about eating potatoes, we are on the right track.”

Aside from that, the commission understands that its potato growers feel strongly about educating the public about farming and what it takes to get healthy, nutritious, safe food on their plates. They are executive producers of a TV series entitled, “Washington Grown.” 

“Each weekly episode features a different produce item. It starts with a chef preparing that produce item in the restaurant and then goes to the farm to see how its grown,” Voigt said.

“The show also covers the nutrition and best ways to hand and store your produce and ends with a home cooking demonstration. It’s an ag show disguised as a food show. The Emmy award-winning program airs on various TV stations throughout the state.”