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Fourth Generation Grower Says Marketing is Industry’s Future

Though Kent Bitter was born and raised on his family’s farm near Shelley, Idaho, it wasn’t until after his first year of college, that he realized he had a special affinity for the land and decided to follow in the footsteps of his pioneer forbearers and become a farmer.

“My great-grandfather, Joseph Bitter, started farming near Logan, Utah, and then expanded to Rexburg and Ririe in southeast Idaho,” Bitter recounts. “Then after some bad years of drought, and some hardship, he lost most of his farms when my grandfather, Vern, was 20.

After working as a school teacher and saving up some money, Vern eventually bought a farm at Beachs Corner, north of Idaho Falls. Later, he saved enough to apply for a homestead in Tulelake, Calif. He actually drew the second farm allotted on this project.

“Some time during World War II, while my father, Harvard, was serving in the Pacific as a bomber pilot with the Army Air Corp, grandpa sold out in Tulelake and moved his family back to Idaho Falls where he had bought a farm south of town on the Jameston Road. As my dad began farming, he expanded to farms just outside of Shelley, Idaho,” Bitter said.

Though Bitter said he had moved five times during his life, each move was near the family’s farm along Jameston Road. He and his wife BettyAnn have raised six children. All have left home except Sheryl, the Bitter’s youngest daughter, who is a junior at Shelley High School.

Joint Venture

Bitter was elected in 2006 as a grower/board member to represent Idaho on the United States Potato Board (USPB). He now farms with his brother Daren in a joint venture. Daren lives on a separate farming unit, almost 40 miles northwest of the Jameston Road farm in Terreton, Idaho. Over the course of 20 years, the brothers have continued operations at the Jameston Road farm, but they sold those fields and purchased land near Terreton to increase their capital base. Terreton is a more isolated farming community with more opportunity for development. Today, the Bitters own 1,800 acres in Terreton.

Kent and Daren rent additional acreage in Shelley and, depending on the year, farm 2,300 acres to 2,500 acres. They typically grow 1,000 acres of wheat, 100 acres to 200 acres of corn silage, 500 acres to 600 acres of hay sold under contract to a cousin’s dairy and 500 acres to 600 acres of Russet Burbank potatoes.

“I’ve been growing potatoes my entire life, and just one variety – the Russet Burbank,” Bitter said. “I think the Idaho industry would have been better to have remained faithful to the Burbank. I think there are good markets and opportunities for other varieties like reds, yellows, whites and specialty varieties like fingerlings, but I think the Russet Burbank, which is still offered in the country’s finest restaurants, is the taste consumers appreciate the most in a baked potato, and when they enjoy this experience, it strengthens Idaho’s image. This is the variety that made Idaho synonymous with high quality potatoes. But I don’t care what the country eats as long as they simply eat more potatoes, whatever the variety.”

Bitter is a part owner in Snake River Plains Potatoes, a fresh pack facility headquartered just north of Idaho Falls in Ucon, Idaho. All of the potatoes are marketed as fresh produce through Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC. The Snake River Plains Potatoes operation has nine growers, including Bitter, and he speaks highly of pooling farm production together into marketing cooperatives.

“We are selling potatoes all through the year, and we average the price through our organization so we don’t get the highs or lows of the market,” Bitter said. “I’m happy to grow the best crop possible and selling at prices which are sustainable for our livelihoods. Joining a marketing organization has been great in taking away a lot of the stress and worry so often associated with the potato industry.”

Bitter, along with his fellow Snake River Plains growers, is a firm advocate of responsibly producing fresh potatoes to profitably serve the market. He is a member of the United Potato Growers of America, but even before joining this organization, Bitter and the other Snake River Plains growers practiced their own supply management. During 2001, this cooperative voluntarily fertilized a 50-acre field with 40,000 cwt. of its finest production before the $1/cwt. government bailout was available.

“United’s information and supply management strategies have been effective in taking the stressing and guessing out of potato marketing, and it is not so much of a gamble anymore,” Bitter said. “In this organization, growers enjoy a new ability to work together in growing the right amount of production for a known market. The information is invaluable and I hope we can get the rest of the growers to join United.”

Marketing Future

Bitter admits he knew very little about USPB before becoming a board member. He understood his payments contributed toward national industry promotion activities, but he really didn’t have an idea as to the extent and development of this work.

Nearly three years ago, when Bitter was attending his first USPB Annual Meeting in Broomfield, Colo., the new Industry Communications & Policy (ICP) department was just forming. He was interested in learning about the new activities and planning to shape this new department and attended the first ICP Committee meetings.

Soon after, Bitter was selected as an Administrative Committee Member from Idaho to serve on the ICP Committee, and he is now completing his second year. He said he was pleased with the nutrition messaging work the USPB is developing, and said this will successfully resonate with consumers, but acknowledges more can be done by industry members.

“There is still a lot of misinformation out there, and as growers, we need to get our message out and take every opportunity to tell our own story,” Bitter said. “I don’t think we can spend enough doing that, and the USPB has done a phenomenal job building up the image of potatoes as good and wholesome vegetables.

Bitter said the future of the potato industry relies heavily on implementing an effective marketing campaign to connect fresh potatoes with consumers and make them more a part of their lives. For this kind of awareness and demand building to take place, he supports increasing the industry’s level of advertising and promotion.

“In this day and age, I think investing just a few more cents for increased advertising and marketing is definitely more important than spending money on a new fertilizer or another product just to produce a few more cwt per acre of potatoes,” Bitter said. “The growers’ time and money in the USPB is well invested. U.S. potatoes and potato products are very well promoted throughout the world and in our nation. The USPB is very efficient with the small amount of money it is funded with.”

David Fairbourn is manager, industry communications and policy, at USPB in Denver.

Originally posted Wednesday, Mar. 11, 2009

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