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New Year’s Resolution

The new year is a time when people resolve to do a lot of things: lose weight, get organized, spend more time with the family. I have a challenge for the potato industry: Resolve to embrace the promising market conditions brought about by the decreased acreage in 2005; resolve to make 2006 the year of innovation. Like a lot of resolution, this one won’t be easy. It will take a lot of work with retailers and with each other.

The market won’t come to you. And you can’t continue doing things the same old way because consumers constantly are looking for the latest and greatest. And I know there’s room for potatoes to step up and take their share of the supermarket spotlight. But it’s up to you, the grower. It’s time to bring potatoes back to the table – the dinner table, and the lunch table, and the breakfast table. People simply aren’t looking for 10-pound bags of Russet potatoes anymore. They want convenient, ready-to-use packages. They want “meal solutions.” They want no-brainer products that they can pick up on their lunch hour and cook in less than 20 minutes when they get home.

“We’re not going to wake up one day and consumers are going to decide to cook like they used to; we have to catch up with them,” said U.S. Potato Board President Tim O’Connor at the National Potato Council Seed Seminar in December.

O’Connor had recently returned from a trip to the United Kingdom where he looked at value-added potato products.

Some of the innovations in the UK include steam-in pouches of potatoes – herbs included; baked potato dishes in throw-away roasting pans – remove the lid, sprinkle the spices and bake; and whole, peeled potatoes – ready to bake. And most of these are servings for two – an increasingly growing segment of the U.S. population. These are all things U.S. consumers literally would eat up.

This is going to take some work. You’ll need to talk with your customers and work with them to develop markets for these products. Obviously, consumers can’t ask for products in the produce department if they aren’t there. And just because consumers don’t come to you doesn’t mean they won’t want exciting new products from the potato industry – they just don’t know they want them yet.

To survive, this industry must step up – and you can’t wait around for someone else to try it first. This isn’t the same industry as the one that existed when many growers entered it, and growers need to embrace the changes in order to stay in it. If everyone sits around waiting for someone else, the industry will grow old and die.

As Tim O’Connor said, “The magic’s gone, we have got to innovate.”

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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