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Bushmans’ continues work on Market Fresh Produce acquisition

“We started harvesting in August,” Mike Carter, president and chief executive officer of Rosholt, WI-based Bushmans’ Inc. told The Produce News on Sept. 20. “We’re now in the height of our storage season, and we’re storing potatoes at a breakneck pace. The crop is looking very nice.”

Mr. Carter added that some varieties are a little smaller than normal. Some russets sized up nicely, but others did not.

“The smaller size is the result of not getting the crop in the ground on time,” he said. “Bad weather robbed us of seven to 10 growing days. But the interesting thing is that it seems to be based on varieties. Some performed very well despite the shorter growing time.”

Prices, he said, were holding steady, and the market was softening a little, which is inevitable this time of year when everyone is harvesting.

“Moving so many potatoes off the field has an effect on the market,” he said. “But by and large we’re satisfied with how it’s going so far. We have to remember that the market is driven by the combination of all growing areas. If it softens in one area, it has an effect on all areas.”

Yields are reportedly off in some states this season, and Mr. Carter said that some producers aren’t in a big hurry to sell, so the market held firm through mid-September.

Conventional wisdom says that potato sales should be up during economic hard times, but due to the short nationwide crop in 2010, potato prices increased and were high during the summer of 2011. The higher prices affected consumption.

The Bushman family has been growing potatoes for over 100 years. The branch of the family that operates Bushmans’ Inc. established the company in 1973. Its growing region is near Rice Lake in northern Wisconsin, about 2.5 hours from its home office. It is a grower-packer-shipper that predominantly handles potatoes and onions. About a year ago, it purchased Market Fresh Produce, and now handles tomatoes as a result of the acquisition.

“We also handle some green peppers, avocados and a few other items,” said Mr. Carter. “And we handle all categories of potatoes. We continue to work with Market Fresh to meld the two companies together. Having the ability to offer our customers a wider basket of produce enables us to be vertically and horizontally integrated, and that’s a benefit to our customers.”

Bushmans’ also continues to work hard on its “Discovery Gardens” program, which it partnered with two years ago. Bushmans’ also owns 50 percent of and has exclusive rights to the brand, which identifies and licenses specific varieties in the marketplace. Bushmans’ markets its yellow-flesh, red-skin Sierra Rose potatoes under the “Discovery Gardens” label.

“Taste profile sets varieties like Sierra Rose apart from others,” said Mr. Carter. “As an industry, we’ve not been very good at promoting taste profiles. We’ve been good at making sure that product is pleasing to consumers’ eyes, but this program concentrates on flavor.”

It’s not accurate to say that produce is a recession-proof industry, he said, “But people have to eat. The other factor is that even though prices were high during the summer, they’re still an incredibly good value in that they are nutritionally dense and satisfying. We believe we have a product that people like and should gravitate toward during hard times.”