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Upbeat outlook for Idaho potatoes at 78th annual IGSA convention

SUN VALLEY, ID -- The Idaho potato industry is operating under a new paradigm, and other potato-growing states around the country have followed suit, Jerry Wright, chief executive officer and president of United Fresh Potato Growers of Idaho, said in his remarks at an industry luncheon during the 78th annual Idaho Grower-Shippers Association convention, here, Aug. 30.

That new paradigm, he explained, is for growers to grow "only what is needed for the fresh market," rather than to grow as many potatoes as they can and then try to market them.

The old paradigm resulted in market gluts that led to unprofitable prices. The new paradigm has brought supply in line with demand, resulting in reasonable grower returns, according to Mr. Wright.

In the 2003-04 season, Idaho shipped 34.3 million hundredweight of potatoes to the fresh market, Mr. Wright said. In 2005-06, the state shipped 31.1 million hundredweight of fresh-market potatoes. The modest reduction in volume met the market's needs and brought better prices than two years earlier.

With the 2006 harvest just getting underway, a crop size similar to the prior year was expected, but with "not as many small sizes," Mr. Wright said. "We've grown the right amount, and that is good news" for the Idaho potato industry. But now it is important for the industry to flow that crop into the market smoothly throughout the year rather than trying to sell it as fast as possible, he said.

Members of the Idaho Potato Commission staff presented an overview of the commission's promotional and public relations programs during a commission meeting held on the morning of Aug. 30 in conjunction with the association's convention and then again for all conference attendees at an industry breakfast Aug. 31.

This year's consumer advertising program introduces two new 30-second television commercials featuring fitness guru Denise Austin, who will again represent the industry as the celebrity spokesperson for Idaho potatoes. The commission's budget for TV advertising is the same as last year, but according to commission President Frank Muir, the ads will be run in fewer markets but with twice the frequency as last year. That is because a study run last year demonstrated the effectiveness of increasing the frequency.

Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice for the commission, introduced a print advertising campaign for foodservice focusing on the theme, "Reinvent," which encourages chefs to try innovative ways to serve potatoes.

Seth Pemsler, vice president of retail for the commission, noted that Potato Lovers Month promotions were up dramatically in February 2006, compared to the year before. Retailers ran 2,700 Potato Lovers Month promotions this year compared to just 400 in 2005.

One major theme of this year's convention was immigration reform, with three different speakers addressing the issue over the course of the convention. Growers are concerned about the severe negative impact on the industry if there is a failure to adopt a comprehensive reform policy that addresses agriculture's labor needs.

Speakers focusing on the immigration issue were Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID); National Potato Council CEO John Keeling; and the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association's Robert Guenther.

Messrs. Crapo and Guenther also addressed the 2007 farm bill and the importance of modifying the bill to address the needs of specialty crops, which represent more than half of U.S. agricultural production, rather than just a handful of "program" crops.