It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the only way to potato farming success is to produce more. While yield is absolutely a priority (and new varieties with higher yield potential and ever-better agronomics are constantly being introduced), building a healthy potato industry into the future depends on marketing higher value product. How? As an entire value chain, we — seed companies and growers, primary producers, processors and retailers — need to focus on nurturing consumer interest in potatoes.
Twenty years ago, the starch on an average Canadian dinner table tended towards bulk-purchased russet or yellow potatoes, simple white rice, or basic, all-wheat noodles. Now, Canadians are opting — and paying significantly more — for specialty rice (think: basmati, jasmine, wild, red, black, brown, Arborio), specialty noodles (gluten-free; quick-cook; lentil-, rice-, or corn-based; plus a plethora of ethnic options), and increasingly popular alternatives like quinoa, couscous, teff, bulghur, and more. Consumers are daily showing that basic and bulk is out; speciality and tailored to specific needs are very in. To maintain and hopefully grow market traction, the potato industry needs to meet today’s consumer priorities.
Already, we’ve made huge strides forward as an industry. In the last handful of years, many companies have done great work in jazzing up packaging, including marketing smaller amounts of product. And, I’m pleased to see mealtime-inspiring options — pre-washed and chopped, ready to roast potato/veggie mixes; ready-to-microwave packaged potatoes; and pre-foiled easy-oven bake russets — now front and centre in grocery stores.
However, there’s still room for lots of improvement. Today’s consumers see value in differentiated product: single-meal portions, convenience and easy-cook options, health-based marketing, organic options, and ‘foody’ alternatives (think purple-fleshed, fingerling, or multi-coloured). Yet, the vast majority of fresh potatoes are still marketed from a price-point perspective, in relatively large bags and under basic red/yellow/russet banners.
As an entire value chain, let’s collaborate on how to make potatoes more attractive to consumers: to better market to young people, to create new packaging and product options, to promote the health benefits of potatoes, and to bring forward new varieties.
Need proof it can be done? Consider sweet potatoes. A generation ago, sweet potatoes were a Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, otherwise ignored, side-dish. Now, sweet potatoes are enjoying ballooning market share because they’ve been expertly marketed as a “healthier alternative.”
Potato production can only get so cheap, so focusing on decreasing the costs of production will only go so far. And, there are a limited number of consumers who want to purchase in bulk, so focusing primarily on producing more volume will cannibalize sales within the industry and drive down prices. A more sustainable priority is to excite consumers, both to increase returns on the potatoes we’re already producing and to promote overall growth in the industry. It’s time to get a little more creative.