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Transforming an Industry

This issue of Spudman is dedicated to the Idaho Potato Commission, which in May celebrated 70 years of representing Idaho potatoes. The commission has increased the visibility of the state’s primary agricultural product, but the case can be made that the entire industry has benefited from the commission’s work.

But there’s always more to do, as I’m sure many of you know. Consumption of fresh potatoes continues to decline. According to Bruce Huffaker at the Potato Market News, if the current rate continues, acreage will have to be reduced by 46 percent to match production. That’s a staggering figure that requires immediate attention.

Being from Michigan, I’m all too familiar with struggling industries. The state’s automotive tax base has been eroded to the point that the current budget has an $800 million deficit – and every other industry has felt the effects, including agriculture.

But even with a dark cloud hanging over the American car companies, I don’t see anyone giving up on them. I’ve never been to a farm that didn’t have a Ford, Dodge, Chevrolet or GMC pickup. And the car market is showing signs of life as well. General Motors is reviving the classic Camaro moniker – creating a buzz for the automaker years before the car is available. GM also has said its next-generation hydrogen fuel platform will be available within the next few years, and Ford is increasing the number of gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles it sells every year.

Innovation will help the automotive industry succeed, and the same is true for the potato industry. Will the round, brown potato ever be as cool as the bright yellow Bumblebee Camaro in this summer’s “Transformers” movie? I doubt it, even if it did morph into a robot that vanquishes other evil robots.

But there’s something to be said for creating products that consumers want. A generation of Americans was looking for a hot-rod car that had all the amenities and luxury of today, and the Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro and Dodge Charger were developed quickly (for the auto industry) to fill that market niche.

What potato products are consumers looking for, or what trends can the industry capitalize on? How in touch are potato growers with their products’ end users? What can we learn from past innovations to help guide the future of the industry?

These are just a few of the many questions that have to be answered before the market becomes too small for everyone to be profitable.

Originally posted Monday, Jul. 23, 2007

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