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Strong potato markets are part of Bushmans' good news

by Tad Thompson | January 11, 2011
Within the potato industry, there is "absolutely a universal agreement that this winter and spring … the market will be strong and that prices will remain solid," according to Mike Carter, chief executive officer of Bushmans' Inc. in Rosholt, WI.

Mr. Carter said that Bushmans’ potato season “is shaping up to be a very good year. Our quality was very good at our own farm. And our grower- partners seem to have had a good year as well. Our 'Sierra Gold’ project continues to gain momentum and acceptance in the marketplace. ‘Sierra Rose’ is not far behind. We have picked up new growers” in the Red River Valley to produce the red potatoes for the “Sierra Rose” brand. The growers “have done a superb job of raising them, and they look absolutely gorgeous. The whole program is based on a taste profile, and the program continues to gain steam. We are getting the word out there. That is important when you have proprietary varieties.”

The “Sierra Gold” brand bagged yellow potatoes are packed by Bushmans’ in partnership with Discovery Garden’s LLC in Oakdale, CA. “Sierra Rose” is a red potato, packaged and marketed in the same manner.

In a Jan. 12 interview with The Produce News, Mr. Carter said that Wisconsin’s 2010 russet yields “were not nearly as big as the year before because the ‘09 growing year was exceptional.” He said that production in 2010 “was much closer to the five-year average than ‘09 was.”

Volume concerns aside, “Russet quality is very good. Our size profile has afforded us excellent carton opportunities, but at the same time it has afforded us plenty of opportunities for five- and 10-pounders as well.”

Mr. Carter said “there was some question early-on whether or not the early rains we had in Wisconsin would have an effect. But the finished quality is very good” for storage russet potatoes.

Bushmans’ packingshed in Rice Lake, WI, “will finish up probably about the same time as it did last year. Maybe a week earlier. It’s too early to tell,” but the Wisconsin russet packing and shipping will probably run until mid-July. This is “very close to normal” for the firm. “We won’t run quite as long as last year, which is a function that yields were so darned big last year.”

Mr. Carter said that Wisconsin weather issues made “red supplies tighter this year. That market is tight. Reds are harder and harder to find at this point. I think it will be over soon, but out of Wisconsin, there will be some pockets that trickle into the market. But we’re getting to the end of the line on reds.”

The end of the Wisconsin potato deal will not mean that Bushmans’ is seasonally out of the potato business. “We have partnerships in several states and sheds in several states,” as well as in New Brunswick in Canada. The firm works with grower-packers in North Dakota, Ohio, Colorado and Idaho to enable a 12-month potato supply.

Year-round shipping “is absolutely a big part of our business plan to assure that our business partners are not shorted. We source from other places as availability dictates. In other words, we source out of other states, if necessary, to supplement Wisconsin potatoes.”

Mr. Carters said that Bushmans’ “big news this year is our acquisition of Market Fresh Produce,” which is located near Springfield, MO. As The Produce News reported last fall, Market Fresh is a wholesale distributor of tomatoes, sweet potatoes, sweet onions and avocados.

In January, Mr. Carter indicated that Market Fresh supplies customers across the country on a program basis. “This gives us the opportunity to supply our customers with an even bigger market basket of produce.” Market Fresh ships the various commodities from nine strategically located shipping-point facilities across the country.

This effort “immensely” strengthens Bushmans’ potato marketing program because it “gives our existing customers additional options and gives Market Fresh’s customers additional options” to received varied and abundant potato supplies.

Market Fresh focuses on long-term relationships and programs rather than selling spot-market supplies. The customers receive supply management and replenishment services. Mr. Carter noted that national sales calls have increasingly become an important part of his work.

“The project has really been enjoyable. It has opened up doors for us and made us more viable with a national presence.”

This new effort “does not necessarily” generate mixed loads, “but we are looking at the existing transportation lanes that Market Fresh uses to offer potato customers some of our specialty potato varieties. There may be an opportunity for ‘Sierra Gold’ and ‘Sierra Rose,’ which are typically sold as partials. We continue to work on making those pieces of the puzzle fit together.”

But the Market Fresh deal, which was finalized Sept. 1, is working well. Since September, Mr. Carter said, “the program has been fantastic. Market Fresh is, at this point, exceeding their projections, and they are continuing to put the right people in place within that organization to position themselves for additional growth in the future.”

Mr. Carter said that other significant news at Bushmans’ is that “Jim Stefan joined the staff over the summer. He has been doing wonderfully. He has a real connection in the foodservice industry and has been on the road working with customers a fair amount. His program is taking off. He has tomato experience.” In light of the Market Fresh tomato program, Mr. Carter observed, “How handy is that?”