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The Idaho Potato Commission in Eagle, ID, will mark its 75th anniversary in January 2012. A year-long celebration throughout the 2011-12 marketing season is under way, and if the season goes as well as it appears it might, the highlight of the celebration, the theme of which is "Big," could well be a record $1 billion in farm-gate revenues for the industry. That is not only big, it is huge.

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In a conversation about the Idaho Potato Commission's public relations activities, which generated 1.5 billion media impressions in 2009 and 2010, then shattered that record last year with 4 billion impressions, Frank Muir, president of the commission, told The Produce News about another "important record" just posted for 2010-11.

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Frank Muir

"We just posted our eighth consecutive year of year-over-year gains of farm gate revenue in Idaho," said Mr. Muir, who, as it happens, has been president of the commission for eight years.

The farm-gate revenues for the Idaho potato industry for the fiscal year that just ended came in at $915 million. "My challenge to our growers and our shippers is we have everything set to hit $1 billion for the first time, and this could definitely be the year for that to happen -- and I'm proud of that," he said. "Here we are in a recessionary environment" in a time of political uncertainty and a "growing localvore movement." Yet the "Idaho Potatoes" brand is "getting stronger and stronger every year. Not bad for a 75-year-old brand."

The commission's public relations efforts for 2011-12, consistent with the campaign's theme, will be big, and they include a scheduled nationwide tour of a semi-truck pulling a long flatbed trailer on which has been built a giant Idaho potato, reminiscent of the one depicted in a popular souvenir post card of Idaho that many people across the country have seen.

"We think all the things we have planned for this year will generate another record year of media impressions," Mr. Muir said. "We have a multitude of programs going on. First and foremost is our nationwide television campaign featuring Denise Austin," which premiered on Labor Day during the Boise State vs. Georgia football game. It has been airing since then on national cable television, beginning in October, and that will continue through January.

In the commercial, Ms. Austin, a popular fitness guru, television celebrity and author who has been spokesperson for Idaho potatoes for several years, appears in an Idaho potato field against a beautiful scenic backdrop and announces that the American Heart Association has certified that Idaho potatoes are heart healthy.

"American Heart Association is one of the most well-known, respected health organizations that people look to for credible information,” Mr. Muir said. The AHA certification "allows our Idaho shippers to carry the American Heart Association's heart Check Mark on their bags" and also allows its use in advertising and promotional materials.

The commission continues its sponsorship of Boise State University and University of Idaho football. Mr. Muir said, "What is important about that is we really get a lot of signage in both stadiums, and particularly in the Boise State stadium, Bronco Stadium," where significant "Idaho Potatoes" signage is seen "in a major way" on television an average of 15 times during every game.

As part of its sponsorship contract, the commission gets one marquee game each season, which, this year, was the Texas Christian University game held Nov. 12 in Boise. For that game, "we had additional signage," he said. "You saw them in the end zone." The game was "brought to you by the Idaho Potato Commission. I got to flip the coin" to start the game, and Spuddy Buddy, the "Idaho Potatoes" mascot, "was out there on the 50 yard line with me. So we did everything but win the game."

The No. 5-ranked Broncos lost to TCU by a single point, the team’s only loss of the season to date, but it was "an incredible game to watch," he said.

Building on the sponsorships of Idaho college football, the commission is now also the title sponsor for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, formerly the Humanitarian Bowl, held in Bronco Stadium and scheduled in this inaugural year for Dec. 17.

"We do this, obviously, for publicity," Mr. Muir said. And "the day we announced it, we generated over 160 million media impressions coast-to-coast, from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times and everything in between. Sports Illustrated, ESPN, CBS Sports, Associated Press, everybody picked up the story."

Idaho potatoes will get at least five national spots, possibly seven, on ESPN during the game, "plus I will be giving a 30-second welcome message at the beginning of the game," he said. In addition, "we will have impressive on-field signage," right on Bronco Stadium's famous Blue Turf, "as well as signage all around the stadium." There will also be permanent signage with the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl logo on the inside and outside of the stadium.

The big semi-truck pulling a giant Idaho potato will make its debut at that game, sporting various logos including the "Famous Potatoes" logo, the AHA's heart Check Mark and the Meals on Wheels logo.

The nationwide tour will begin in the spring, and as the truck with the giant Idaho potato "rolls across America," its major theme will be to raise awareness and money for Meals on Wheels, which provides over 1 million meals daily to homebound seniors, Mr. Muir said.

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