It was a mixed message of good news and caution that Frank Muir delivered Tuesday to Idaho’s potato growers at the Idaho Potato Commission’s inaugural The Big Idaho Potato Harvest Meeting 2017.
This year’s single-harvest meeting at the Shoshone-Bannock Hotel and Event Center in Fort Hall represented a departure from previous whistle-stop tours that the IPC had conducted across the state during the past 14 years.
Travis Blacker, commission industry relations director, estimated attendance at more than 300.
Muir, commission president and CEO, began his presentation with a brief tribute to former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, who died Aug. 24, by playing a commercial from the late 1970s of Andrus extolling Idaho’s famous potatoes.
At the top of the list of major news for Idaho’s potato industry is the recent launch by Lamb Weston of frozen retail products called Grown in Idaho.
“I’ve been working with the processors for many years trying to get one of the major processors to do just this,” Muir said.
After several studies by Lamb Weston over the past eight years, the company decided to launch three Grown in Idaho frozen potato products: 1) Hand-Cut Fries; 2) Crispy Potato Puffs and 3) Super Crispy Crinkle Cut Fries.
“You’re going to see frozen execution of our fresh IPC marketing programs and its going to be the largest marketing spin Lamb Weston has ever done behind any of their launches,” Muir said.
Lamb Weston’s national marketing campaign will include Idaho potato farmer Mark Coombs. Coombs has become the familiar face of the commission’s own national advertising campaign of the Idaho potato grower in search of the big Idaho potato truck.
There was good news on the fresh potato market sector as well.
“Last year we shipped a record 38 million hundredweight,” Muir said, which represents a 12-percent increase of fresh shipments over the previous year.
“People talk about a decline in demand. Not Idaho,” Muir said. “There’s high demand for Idaho potatoes and we need to leverage that every single day.”
He said that while carton prices for Idaho potatoes were good throughout the year, bag prices for Idaho potatoes were weak until the end of the year. Muir also said that in his opinion, growers could have shipped potatoes for a higher price.
Muir said that consumers will pay a premium for Idaho potatoes, but they expect a quality potato when they pay a premium price.
He said that Idaho is having quality issues and the commission is hearing from consumers and retailers about it.
“Quality in the past two years has continued to be declining and we’ve got to fix it,” Muir said.
He said that the IPC is working with University of Idaho potato researchers Mike Thornton and Nora Olsen to help resolve some of the quality issues that occur during harvest and in storage.
Muir said that IPC is also working with a major retailer to help resolve the quality issues in storage.
“How many retailers would do that,” Muir asked the audience. “It tells you how strong your brand is.”
He said growers, shippers and the commission need to take necessary action to protect the Idaho brand that is recognized as the nation’s best potato.
“When you have a premium brand it has got to be backed by premium quality,” Muir said. “If it is not eventually consumers figure it out. We cannot rest on our laurels we have always got to be improving.”