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Bill DeVos: Growers Should Focus on Consumers

There are three items prominently displayed in my office. One is a painting by Colorado artist Tom Lockhart, “Greenwings over a Wintry Marsh,” which I won at an NPC National Seed Seminar hosted by Colorado. Then there is the gold medal won in doubles table tennis in the BC Senior Games this summer. The last item is a decorated plate about the North Dakota potato industry. It shows a horse-drawn cultivator, tractors pulling a planter and a digger and the late Dr. Bob Johansen among potato plants in a greenhouse.

Dr. Johansen was a prolific breeder and developed many potato varieties at North Dakota State University. They all carry the prefix “Nor.” Norchip, Norgold, Norland, Nordonna, Norking, Norqueen, Norvalley and Norkotah come to mind. Some of these varieties have been replaced by others, especially the Norchip. Norlands are still going strong. Norgold showed too much hollowheart. Norkotah has by far the most acres of any of them. If you read my article in the July/August issue of Spudman, then you know how I feel about Norkotah. I received many positive reactions and comments, which I would like to share with you.

One comment was that somebody in a prominent position in the West had stated many years ago that “whoever decided that this was a marketable variety should have been publicly flogged.” All my efforts to obtain the name of that person were for naught. If a reader knows, please pass the name on to Spudman and I will follow up on it.

When Norkotahs first came on the scene, they were in test plots at the Alberta Agriculture Research Centre in Brooks, Alberta, and were discarded because of diseases and, mostly, taste.

A prominent board member of a potato organization told me that they have discussed Norkotah many times and realize the tremendous harm it has done and will continue to do to the fresh market. Nobody will ever know the financial impact.

A producer/packer told me that “the trade wants Norkotahs.” My reply is: If you offer them a variety that is as good looking or better and tastes great, then it will not be long before they will make the decision to go with the better spud.

I was also told that growers are willing to try other varieties, but need a three-year guarantee that it will sell. That would be great, but the risk remains on the farm.

This leads me to marketing. An e-mail from Bob Doughty in Idaho said: “I studied the work the USPB has done along with dozens, if not hundreds, of visits to the produce departments of stores. When I would catch a consumer in the act of buying spuds, I would simply approach them and ask them if they were getting what they wanted when they bought spuds. I found them not the least bit bashful and usually got an (earful). I firmly believe that if you offer them a good tasting product packaged uniquely, they will pay a premium for that product.”

Don Northcott of HZPC Americas wrote: “Regarding Russet Norkotah, that is a variety for the potato producer, packer and broker/suppliers.”

Good yields and good appearance benefit the supplier, but at the retail level, what benefit does Norkotah offer to the consumer? Consumers, over time, will make flavor-based decisions. In Europe, retail companies have established “Flavor Farms,” where new varieties of produce are grown and screened for consumer appeal prior to acceptance as produce candidates. In North America, HZPC has a number of clients/producers who recognize the effect of flavor. They conduct taste tests prior to selecting a variety for their production and supply commitments. Our work as variety developers keeps the concerns of growers and packers firmly in mind as we focus on the evolving demands of consumers.

The new potato bags in the July/August issue of Spudman caught my eye. It irked me to see that some had the generic name “Russet” and not a specific variety name. I’ve noticed the same thing on many cartons of imported potatoes I have seen on Vancouver Island. I even ran across them in a very isolated village on the West Coast, which we visited while traveling on a freighter with tourist accommodations.

Using the generic name is dangerous. A dissatisfied customer automatically rejects at least six Russet varieties, which is unfair to the excellent ones that are available. Go visit a produce department and note that apples are sold by name. We can learn a lesson from that. The only one that seems to be marketed by name is the Yukon Gold, but many bags carry the inscription “Yellow Potatoes,” which also is not proper.

It was just brought to my attention that some packers in Manitoba want producers to raise Goldrush as a replacement for Norkotah. All I want to say to them is “good for you, you have taken the bull by the horns. You are on the right track by considering the consumers’ needs, I have no doubt that you will reclaim lost sales by supplying better potatoes.”

You want to increase your sales? Then get on the bandwagon and offer good – no, great – tasting potatoes that have the consumer begging for more.

One variety I overlooked the last time I aired my grievances over Norkotahs is the Innovator. I used to sell that one, as it is an HZPC variety. It has a nice shape, is well russeted, eats and bakes well, processes from storage, has great flavor and is yellow fleshed. What else can we want from a potato?

I look forward to a better future for the potato industry as it adjusts to the needs of the consumer and the institutional trade.

Make them your priority and you will reap the benefits in due time.

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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