Nov 13, 2020
Potatoes USA adding new office, culinary facility in Denver plus other potato industry updates

The Idaho Potato Commission (IPC) held its annual Big Idaho Potato Harvest Meeting in a virtual, condensed format on Nov. 12.

During the hour-long session, Potatoes USA CEO Blair Richardson, National Potato Council CEO Kam Quarles and IPC President & CEO Frank Muir delivered pre-recorded video presentations on the state of the potato industry.

The overriding theme was COVID-19’s impact on the industry and what’s been done to respond through legislative advocacy, supply chain and marketing.

Quarles and Muir both detailed efforts of their staffs and the staffs of all the state potato organizations around the U.S. to communicate impacts of COVID, which significantly hindered foodservice demand of potatoes due to restrictions and shutdowns, to federal government officials. Quarles added that Idaho Congressmen — Sens. James Risch and Mike Crapo and Reps. Mike Simpson and Russ Fulcher — were especially active in speaking on the industry’s behalf in Washington, D.C. and around the country.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) and subsequent CFAP 2 follow-up have been passed in the months since the pandemic hit. Muir cited $119 million in aid from the original CFAP program to the potato industry. The application period of CFAP 2 is still open, so payment totals haven’t been finalized, however, Quarles has said this version is much easier to navigate and inclusive to specialty crop growers.

“I’ve dealt with many relief programs in my 20 years, but these COVID programs have a lot of zeroes behind them,” said Quarles, who later singled out IPC Vice President of Legal and Government Affairs Pat Kole as a key figure in the efforts. “Pat’s knowledge of the industry and his credibility with policymakers was essential.” (See video below.)

Potatoes USA

The consumer demand shift from foodservice to retail led to changes at Potatoes USA, the marketing arm of the U.S. potato industry. People eating more at home and being physically socially distant — although more connected digitally — has changed strategy, program focus and staff, Richardson said.

Blair Richardson, CEO, Potatoes USA

Efforts at Potatoes USA, as well as the IPC, have been made to educate consumers on how to cook and store potatoes, as it become known that there were many first-time buyers of retail potatoes once the pandemic started. “We want those first experiences with potatoes to be positive ones,” Richardson said.

Potatoes have been the top-selling vegetable in retail during the pandemic, Richardson noted, accounting for 22.4% of all vegetable purchases.

Also, with people being less in contact with each other physically, a bigger emphasis has been put on monitoring and shaping the conversations on social media and other digital platforms. Recently, Potatoes USA created a Conversation Architect position and hired Natalia Cervantes, who has extensive social media and digital marketing experience.

Potatoes USA has spent up plans to create a new office facility and headquarters in Denver that will include a culinary center. “This will allow us to collaborate with restaurants around the world,” Richardson said. He added that the additional space will allow for more on-site meeting capabilities and other events, which will lower expenses. It’s projected to save the organization $1.6 million long-term, he added.

IPC updates

Muir further detailed marketing and advocacy efforts both pre-COVID and once restrictions started and retail demand increased. He did numerous high-profile interviews, including on “Dr. Oz,” as well as grower Ryan Cranney being a guest on “Live with Kelly and Ryan,” following drawing attention for giving away 2 million pounds of potatoes he couldn’t sell.

A few other updates included:

  • The IPC’s goal of moving a commissioner seat from Western Idaho to Eastern Idaho to better represent the potato farm geographic breakdown fell short in the State House of Representatives for the second straight year. “It’s up to the industry to speak with one voice,” Muir said.
  • Muir thanked outgoing commissioners Nick Blanksma, Randy Hardy and Mary Hasenoehrl for their service and welcomed newly sworn in commissioners Ron Ambrose, Mark Darrington and Eric Jemmett, all growers, to the commission. Todd Cornelison will serve as chair and Brett Jensen vice-chair for the upcoming year.
  • The IPC is in negotiations for this year’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl football game sponsorship with ESPN, as well as with college football participating conferences MAC and MWC. While the COVID situation will keep everything fluid, Muir said he’s hopeful the game will take place and is working with the parties on what the game and IPC sponsorship will look like.
  • It is expected that the Big Idaho Potato Truck will be back on the road for the 2021 season.

— By Zeke Jennings, managing editor

Top photo: Frank Muir of the Idaho Potato Commission appears on the “Dr. Oz” show.

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