While the conventional potato category tends to be driven by the value-centric potato bags, it’s the higher-priced specialty potatoes that create the buzz and increased sales on the organic side of the ledger.
Robert Schueller, director of public relations at Melissa’s Produce, Los Angeles, said double digit growth in the firm’s specialty potatoes continues even after many years of carrying the products. The firm began carrying organic baby reds 12 years ago and in the last year they have seen a 12 percent increase in sales. Organic fingerlings joined the lineup six years ago, and the growth in the sales in the last year was 23 percent . The newest addition to their organic specialty potato sales sheet is the organic baby yellow potato. This is only the second year, the specialty distributor has been carrying this product and year over year sales are at 27 percent.
Schuller said all of the organic production from Idaho was harvested in September and is currently in storage and will be sold over the next year with about 30 percent of the sales coming in the November/December time frame. While there were no problems with harvest, Schueller said it is a specialty item and it does not lend itself to price promotions as annual supply is still chasing the growing demand.
Another item in the category that has seen huge growth is sales of organic sweet potatoes or yams, as they are called in some parts of the country. The sweet potato category – both conventional and organic – has seen growth as the item tries to bust out of its fourth-quarter-only slot. Schueller said many retailers drastically cut displays or eliminate the item all together come January as they see it only as a holiday item. However, sweet potato fries and other year-round uses have gained popularity in the foodservice world and that trend is filtering down to retail. Melissa’s offers an organic sweet potato and an organic baby yam and Schueller said sales have been brisk.
Of course, in terms of sheer volume, the more traditional potato varieties – such as russets and full-sized yellows and reds – still are the biggest movers in the organic sector. Kevin Stanger, senior vice president/new business development manager for Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC, Idaho Falls, ID, said there is a market for organic russets and the other varieties but it’s growing rather slowly compared to other organic fresh produce categories. And most of that growth is on the coasts rather than in the middle of the United States – often called meat and potato country.
Stanger opined that potatoes, especially bagged potatoes, are a value item. By their very nature, he said yields on organic potatoes are much lower than their conventional counterpart, which requires a premium price. Consequently, Stanger said the organic russet “is not an item where we have seen tremendous growth. They do okay, but we sell very few 10-pound bags…mostly three and five pounders.”
He said convincing growers to produce organic russets is not an easy sell as it is a commodity item with yields basically determining its profitability. “Finding (organic) ground is a challenge,” Stanger said.
He did add Wada is just starting to get into the production of organic specialty potatoes to take advantage of the growth in that sector.
Though Melissa’s is only a very small player in the organic russet category, Schueller concurred with the experiences of Wada. He said the Southern California firm has been selling the organic russet potato since it became a certified organic distributor 17 years ago. Sales increases in that category, have only come about because of population growth. While the organic specialty potato category only represents a small slice of the entire organic potato sector, he said it represents almost all of the growth.