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SUN VALLEY, ID - A year ago at the 81st annual Idaho Grower Shipper Association meeting, the industry strategized in the face of moving a record crop. As part of that effort, the Idaho Potato Commission ramped up its promotional programs on the retail, foodservice and international fronts with a number of consumer and trade initiatives.

This year, the industry is looking at a much shorter crop. However, the commission will continue with an all-out promotional assault to help move the state's famous spuds and maintain the "Idaho" brand recognition.

Kicking off the Sept. 2 breakfast at the IGSA's 82nd annual convention, held here Sept. 1-3, Frank Muir, president of the commission, told those gathered that after a rough start last season, carton prices rebounded in March and shipments finished 15 percent higher than during the prior year. Now heading into the new crop, Idaho has gained 4.2 percent in market share.

But despite the rebound, challenges remain, with continuing economic woes and the strengthening locavore movement among the key obstacles for Idaho potatoes.

Highlighting the commission's promotional efforts is a public relations campaign, which resulted in a record 1.5 billion media impressions, shattering the previous year's total of 1 billion impressions.

Those impressions have occurred in a variety of media, from trade newspapers to consumer magazines to television spots. Many of the impressions have hammered home the message that Idaho potatoes are not only nutritious, they are also a great value.

This year's campaign also will feature a new series of commercials set to debut in mid-October on both network television and national cable stations, and will attempt to hammer home the importance of looking for the "Grown in Idaho" seal, said Mr. Muir.

The commission also has partnered with both Boise State University and the University of Idaho to display signage and conduct promotions at the schools' football games.

"We are looking to leverage BSU's run for the national championship," Mr. Muir said of the school, which was ranked No. 3 in preseason polls and which prevailed in a hard-fought Labor Day match-up with No. 10 Virginia Tech.

Finally, Mr. Muir announced that Idaho potatoes had received permission to carry the American Heart Association's "Heart Check" mark, indicating that they are a heart-healthy food. The status is expected to be implemented in February during Potato Lover's Month and will be promoted via a satellite media tour with IPC spokesperson Denise Austin.

In closing, Mr. Muir said that all categories, including fresh, frozen and dehy, are showing growth trends, with more people saying that potatoes are their favorite vegetables, and negatives attitudes about potatoes dropping to 24 percent from 35 percent in 2004 at the height of the Atkins Diet craze.

"You have a healthy business," he said.

Seth Pemsler, vice president of retail and international for the commission, followed Mr. Muir's report with some specifics about programs that will help move Idaho potatoes through retail channels.

"We're planning to continue to use things that worked for us in the past and to expand the use of data to become a stronger resource for our shippers," he said.

Among the national programs in the works are a continuation of the Potato Lover's Month retail display contest, and cross-promotions with Fresh Gourmet and Mrs. Dash seasonings.

New this year is a series of cartoons dubbed the "Idaho Potato Field Force" that features the commission's retail field merchandisers as superheroes who help save the day for produce managers.

"We are really looking to highlight our field merchandisers and show what a valuable resource they are," said Mr. Pemsler. "They have direct access to every retailer and have the ability to provide tailored marketing plans through their knowledge of the key accounts and through weekly market audits to show how Idaho potatoes are handled and merchandised."

Mr. Pemsler said that the commission uses the data mined from the weekly audits to determine opportunities to expand and promote the category, including running timely programs like bin promotions.

"The field team is basically your eyes and ears in the marketplace," he said.

Following Mr. Pemsler on the dais was Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice for the commission, who spoke about some of the initiatives the IPC will undertake to boost the usage of Idaho potatoes among that segment of the business.

"We are looking to work more closely with restaurant chains to revamp menus to include more Idaho potatoes," said Mr. Odiorne. "Working closely with the chains helps establish relationships with the operators, and they start to look to us as a resource."

The commission also will be spreading the Idaho potato message through its participation in the School Nutrition Association, which represents 55,000 members that provide nutritious, cost-effective meals to students.

Additionally, it is attempting to reach a younger audience through spudtacular.com, the commission's foodservice-oriented web site that features various games and activities.

Mr. Odiorne said that the commission also will be reaching out to both professional and amateur media, which includes trade and consumer publications as well as bloggers.

Finally, participation in trade shows, such as the National Restaurant Association convention and the PMA Foodservice conference, are also part of the commission's future foodservice promotion plans, as is its alliance with Art (Mr. Food) Ginsburg, a well-known television personality who the IPC will use to reinforce its message that Idaho potatoes are a good value.