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Idaho Potato Commission celebrates 70 years

The Idaho Potato Commission (IPC) celebrated 70 years as the marketing arm of Idaho potatoes in May. The role IPC has played in the development of other commodity advertising groups is a large one, as is Idaho’s role in U.S. potato production.

The state harvests more than 13 billion pounds of potatoes annually – about one-third of all U.S. potatoes – and about 40,000 Idaho residents are involved in potato production or an affiliated business. The industry represents $2.7 billion to the state – the farm-gate value plus the added contributions of production inputs including chemicals, irrigation, storage, etc.

IPC has grown from an advertising commission representing four or more Idaho crops to the single-commodity marketing and research commission it is now. The group has been on the leading edge of technology since its foundation, and promotions that have been launched in its 70th year are continuing to push the boundaries of potato marketing and commodity marketing as a whole.

History

There aren’t many commodity groups older than the Idaho Potato Commission. The group was originally founded as the Idaho Fruit and Vegetable Advertising Commission in 1937 by a group of forward-looking growers. That group was organized to promote the state’s potatoes, onions, apples and prunes. Growers paid a 1-cent per cwt. assessment.

At that time, Idaho wasn’t a big player in the potato industry. With only 130,000 acres harvested in 1937 and a yield of 135 cwt., the value of Idaho’s potato crop was about $7 million, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. The powerhouse of the day was Maine, which yielded 171 cwt. from its 163,000 harvested acres and was valued at more than $17 million.

Idaho had no price premium at the time, either. The state’s potatoes sold for about 40 cents per cwt., much lower than Maine’s 62 cents per cwt.

Those numbers have changed dramatically over the years. Idaho is now the No. 1 producer of potatoes in the United States, with about 330,000 acres planted for the 2006-07 season. With an average yield of 371 cwt., the state produced nearly 122,000 cwt. At a price of around $5.85/cwt., USDA put the total value at more than $712 million.

Much of that is the result of commercial advertising that has created a premium brand on Idaho potatoes – what Frank Muir, president of the Idaho Potato Commission, calls an “image quality.”

The commission spent $19,052 on 53 newspapers in 10 cities and $2,612 on radio advertisements during the first year of its promotion. The second year, the newspaper budget jumped to more than $58,000. Nearly $52,000 was spent on newspaper promotions in 1939.

A lawsuit filed in 1939 reduced the income of the advertising commission. The Idaho Legislature responded by eliminating apples and prunes from the program and reducing the assessment to .05 cents per cwt., with seed potatoes exempt. The name was changed to the Idaho Advertising Commission. That action reduced the newspaper ad budget to $21,000 in 1940, but as production increased the budget grew to more than $42,000.

Consumers were responding to the publicity about Idaho potatoes. By 1951, Idaho-grown potatoes were getting more than $1 per cwt. over other producing areas. But that premium began to attract unscrupulous growers and packers. Some producers in other states began selling their potatoes as Idaho potatoes or “Idaho Type Russets,” and some would repack bags of Idaho potatoes with lesser-quality potatoes – or in some cases packers practiced “stove piping,” where good potatoes were packed around a stove pipe filled with culls that was removed before final delivery.

In the early 1950s, the commission began looking for ways to identify potatoes that were grown in Idaho. In 1955, a patent was filed for the “GROWN in Idaho” label, and that same year the commission – concerned about other states using the Idaho name – began experimenting with stamping each potato with the Idaho name. The commission worked on improving the stamping technique for almost 20 years, but technical problems and a public that wasn’t accepting of stamped potatoes finally caused the commission to give up on branding every Idaho potato.

In 1959, in order for consumers to know where their potatoes were coming from, the commission worked with packers to identify Idaho products with the Grown in Idaho label and the name of the company, preceded with “Packed in Idaho by.”

Promotions

Idaho is known for its “Famous Potatoes.” The state has stamped the phrase on its license plates since the late 1920s, years before an official promotions commission was created. Various plates have included images of Idaho baker potatoes or just the “Famous Potatoes,” but the state Legislature has moved to remove potatoes from license plates over the years. The most recent attempt, in 2006, was met with public outcry and the plan to remove the unofficial state logo was abandoned.

“It tells me that the state as a whole is very proud of its agricultural roots,” Muir said.

The rest of the country might recognize the commission’s mascot: Spuddy Buddy. Almost 15 years ago, IPC was in negotiations with Hasbro to use the Mr. Potato Head character as a symbol of Idaho potatoes. But that fell through because the hit movie “Toy Story” came out and brought with it a renewed interest in the Mr. Potato Head toy.

But IPC had another character up its sleeve. “Potato Buddy,” a cartoon potato wearing a cowboy hat, bandana and boots was used in a 1983 promotion. That character was updated in 1994 to the smiling potato wearing a red Idaho sweater and tennis shoes, and in an interview on the “Today” show with Willard Scott, then-IPC Chairman Don Dixon announced the new name – Spuddy Buddy. He makes special appearances as a costume, is sold as a stuffed animal and has appeared in coloring books and on menus at restaurant chains across the country, promoting the Idaho potato brand.

Helping the Industry

While IPC was formed to help promote Idaho potatoes and other crops, the commission has managed to help the entire potato industry through hard times.

“I truly believe that Idaho’s advertising grows the entire industry,” Muir said. “It’s part of the market leader’s responsibility to do that.”

During the years of low-carbohydrate diet fads, IPC “led the charge” against the Atkins-type diets and the effect was visible, Muir said.

“Within a year, Atkins International filed for bankruptcy,” he said.

The commission’s impact on the industry has led other grower-funded groups to take a more active role in promoting their produce. Following the defensive moves against low-carb diets, the Florida Citrus Commission was inspired to promote oranges in the face of declining consumption.

IPC also has helped open up new markets for Idaho growers and potato growers from other states. Following the finding of potato cyst nematode in eastern Idaho, a number of valuable markets closed their borders to U.S.-grown potatoes. Over the following months, those restrictions were narrowed down to just Idaho, and then just specific counties in Idaho.

But foreign markets were damaged by the crisis. Two years ago, there was no fresh market for Idaho potatoes in Mexico. But through the work of IPC, Idaho potatoes captured about one-third of the fresh Mexican market, and that was expanding until the PCN finding closed the border to the state’s potatoes. It took months of hard work, but by June 2007 Mexico was open to Idaho potatoes – but only the first 26 kilometers of the country.

Muir said the commission was working on promotions specifically for the Mexican fresh market and also developing the country’s processing and frozen markets.

“We’re going to do some things in Mexico like we do here,” Muir said.

The Future of IPC

IPC is a forward-looking organization. It always has been, Muir said. That was part of his decision to join IPC as president almost four years ago.

“I remember thinking to myself that they were really, really progressive farmers,” he said.

The early advertising association was one of the first industry groups to adopt television advertising, and was heavily invested in radio as far back as the 1930s. The commission has always been “on the cutting edge,” Muir said, and new promotions launched this year are keeping the commission there.

June saw the release of IPC’s Web promotion, the iTuber Video Contest. Consumers submitted videos through the YouTube Web site between May 15 and June 29 that featured Idaho potatoes. The winner received $1,000, and five runners-up received gift baskets. Anyone who entered the competition received a Spuddy Buddy doll. IPC had the help of Dawn Wells – Mary Ann from “Gilligan’s Island” – who kicked off the contest with her own video on tips for peeling potatoes.

Muir said the goal of the Internet-based promotion was to reach the younger demographic. IPC research has found that consumers older than 30 are “extremely Idaho brand loyal,” and consumers in their late teens and early 20s still prefer the Idaho potato – but their loyalty is not as intense.

“What’s the best way to reach the 18 to 25 age group?” Muir asked. “The Internet.”

Reaching that group is important because members of the younger generation like to tell others what they’ve learned. Muir said he wanted an 18-year-old to see the Wells video and then go tell her grandma about a new way to peel a potato.

“Young people love to tell older people the new way of doing things,” Muir said.

IPC also is a sustaining partner for “Spudfest,” a family film and television festival that was the brainchild of Wells. The festival, held in Driggs, Idaho, was founded in 2004 and attracts hundreds to view independently made family movies and television programs.

Muir said IPC tries to leverage its advertising “to get the most mileage out of it as we can.” While the commission’s $10 million budget may seem like a lot to most other state commissions, promotion on the national level is incredibly expensive. In the end, the advertising and promotion is done on what seems like a “shoestring budget,” Muir said.

Muir’s goal in his four years at IPC has been to bring all of the individual markets the commission represents together – “focus on what matters to all of us,” he said. Fresh, frozen and processing had been in individual “silos,” but more can be accomplished by working together, Muir said. One way he’s brought them together is by leading the effort to create a mission statement for IPC. Over the years, hundreds of pages of documents have been generated that tell what the commission does and why, but that’s been pared down to a single page that identifies the core principles and goals of IPC. Muir said it hasn’t changed much throughout its history.

“I think that message has stayed pretty online over the years,” he said.

Originally posted Monday, Jul. 23, 2007

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