Trendy fingerling potatoes star at Richard's
Move over, russets.
When you shop in a supermarket produce section or order from a fine-dining restaurant menu, you’ll see small, colorful potatoes and fingerlings vying for your attention for your meal order. That’s making an impact on Idaho’s iconic potato-growing industry, which is noticing the little spuds’ rising prices and profit potential.
Russets still dominate, with 92 percent of Idaho’s potato crop and 71 percent nationwide devoted to the familiar brown spud. Smaller potatoes, which include varieties sold fresh but also used for French fries and potato chips (as are russets), account for 8 percent of Idaho acres planted and 29 percent nationally.
Acreage for each has changed little so far. But because the small potatoes carry a premium price, their share of the overall potato market in dollars has increased to 15 percent, from 10 percent four years ago, according to Potandon Produce, a large Idaho shipper.
“You’re selling a one-and-a-half or two-pound bag for 3 or 4 bucks, so you’re getting a higher cost per pound sale,” said Ralph Schwartz, Potandon’s vice president of sales.
That may be no surprise to anyone who’s shopped for potatoes lately. A 10-pound bag of the classic Idaho potato, the russet, was selling recently for $2.99 at an Albertsons in Boise, and individual baker russets sold for 69 cents per pound. Nearby, golfball-sized red petite and small gold potatoes sold for $1.69 a pound. The even-smaller, finger-shaped fingerlings were $1.99 per pound.
The small potatoes have names such as AmaRosa, Purple Passion, Bintje, Ruby Crescent and Russian Banana. Potato marketers are increasingly using variety names in stores, taking a cue from the apple industry, which has found success — and claimed more space on grocers’ shelves — by developing premium-priced varieties like Honeycrisp.
The small potatoes may not carry the cachet or familiarity of Honeycrisp, Fuji or Braeburn apples, but that day might not be far off.
“Consumers already shop for potatoes by variety names,” Schwartz said. “It’s just not as developed as the apple industry yet.”
Two Idaho farms grow fingerlings
Small potatoes became popular in Europe decades ago and have made inroads in the United States over the past 20 years. Some, like the Russian banana, have been around for centuries. Others are recent. The AmaRosa went to market in 2010.
“They have a different texture to them,” said Mike Thornton, a plant science professor at the University of Idaho. “They cook up a little quicker and differently than most standard varieties people are used to. And when you keep that skin on, you’re keeping all of the nutrients available in that cooked product.”
SouthWind Farms, in Heyburn east of Twin Falls, specializes in red, purple and yellow fingerlings. SouthWind Farms and Magic Valley Growers in Wendell are Idaho’s only commercial fingerling growers, according to the Idaho Potato Commission. Scott Gorczyca, assistant general manager for SouthWind, said fingerlings have a unique shape with eye appeal that he finds more interesting than russets or smaller round potatoes.
“It’s something different,” he said. “It’s not your russet. It’s not your round red or yellow.
Sixty percent of all potatoes grown in the United States are processed into French fries, other frozen products, chips, dehydrated potatoes and other products. The remainder are sold fresh, fed to farm animals or used as seed for the next year’s crop.
Richard Langston, owner and chef at Richard’s restaurant in Downtown Boise, has been cooking with small potatoes for about five years. He likes the flavor, texture and the way the different colors — purple, red, golden and yellow — look on the plate.
“They’re pretty versatile: You can serve them whole or you can cut them if you need to,” Langston said. “They cook quickly and we can take them out, chill them and then reheat them really fast, because they are small.”
How Idaho earned potato crown
Potatoes were grown by the Incas in South America as early as 8,000 B.C. Spanish explorers, who conquered Peru in 1536 brought them back to Europe. Before the end of the century, Basque families began cultivating them along the Biscay coast. They arrived in the American Colonies in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1621 but the first permanent potato crops were not planted until 1719 in New Hampshire, according to Potatoes USA, a marketing group.
Irish immigrants fleeing Ireland after the potato famine in the mid-1800s brought additional potatoes to the United States. Idaho began growing potatoes in 1836, brought by missionaries heading west.
Last year, the U.S. produced 44.7 billion pounds of them, with nearly a third, 14.7 billion pounds, grown in Idaho.
Together, Idaho and Washington produce more than half of the annual supply. Idaho became the top-producing state in 1957, when it surpassed Maine, and has stayed No. 1 since.
Four russet varieties dominate Idaho production, accounting for 82.2 percent of the state’s production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Other varieties, including smaller varieties and those used for making potato chips, make up the rest in the $1.2 billion industry in Idaho.
An average russet plant produces eight to 12 potatoes, each weighing about half a pound, Thornton said. Small-potato varieties produce 15 to 20 potatoes that average about two ounces each. The smaller varieties can be planted closer together, but the overall weight from russets is going to be much higher for the same amount of land than the smaller varieties, he said.
“We’re growing for size,” said Gorczyca, of SouthWind Farms. “We’re not growing for weight or for a certain amount of sacks.”
Move to smaller potatoes began in Idaho
Idaho Falls-based Potandon Produce is the exclusive marketer of fresh potatoes and onions under the Green Giant label. It offers small Klondike Rose and Klondike Goldust potatoes, for example, at WinCo stores and other retailers.
Potandon introduced the Klondike Rose, a small-length potato with red skin and yellow flesh, in 2002. With a buttery flavor, the potato was the first significant new potato to come out since the 1980 introduction of the Yukon Gold, Schwartz said. It was followed a year later by the Klondike Goldust, with a smooth yellow skin and vivid yellow flesh.
“They made a big impact, and the entire potato industry suddenly started seeking out new varieties, new sizes,” Schwartz said.
At its Parma Research and Extension Center, the University of Idaho grows about 100 varieties of potatoes each year. Thornton, the plant scientist, and his crew evaluate new varieties for yield, quality and size before they are offered to farmers or companies. Between 10 percent and 20 percent of the potatoes tested are small varieties, Thornton said.
The J.R. Simplot Co., which invented the frozen French fry and landed McDonald’s as one of its earliest customers, still focuses on the russet. (The late J.R. Simplot was a driving force behind putting “Famous Potatoes” on Idaho license plates.) Last year, the company received federal approval to plant and sell the second generation of its Innate line of genetically engineered russet potatoes that resist the pathogen that caused the Irish potato famine.
But Simplot has also found success with Baby Bakers, a 4-ounce frozen potato that can be served after 10 minutes in the microwave or 20 minutes in a conventional oven. Baby Bakers use a small, light-colored potato with thin skin and buttery yellow flesh. Citing competitive reasons, Simplot declined to name the variety.
Eagle-based Lamb Weston, North America’s top frozen-potato maker, does not handle small potatoes, spokeswoman Tammy Barry said.
University tests small potatoes
Potandon’s Schwartz said small potatoes have found a market among people who want to cook potatoes at home in less time than russets require. They can now cook a pound of potatoes in five or six minutes.
“That meant a lot to on-the-go families,” he said.
Potandon still handles plenty of russets. The company says it is the largest potato supplier in the United States, with 100 packing locations across the country. Schwartz said the company handles about a third of the 125,000 acres of russets grown in Idaho.
Potandon introduced its line of small potatoes about a dozen years ago.
“They’re definitely here to stay,” Schwartz said, “and they grow in significance and brand value every year.”