By Sean Ellis
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation
BOISE – In the end, 2020 was a pretty good year for Idaho’s iconic potato industry, but it sure wasn’t easy.
That’s one of the main messages Idaho Potato Commission CEO Frank Muir delivered to lawmakers recently as he brought members of the House and Senate agricultural committees up to date on how the state’s spud industry fared last year.
During his annual “state of the potato industry” address to Idaho legislators, Muir also spoke about the power of the Idaho potato brand and how it helps not only the spud industry but the entire state.
“Whenever you say to anybody you’re from Idaho, then the next word that comes out of their mouth is, ‘potatoes,’” Muir said.
That connection between Idaho and potatoes should not be discounted, he added, because people associate Idaho potatoes with quality and by extension they also associate Idaho itself with quality.
“When consumers hear the words Idaho potatoes, the word that comes to mind is quality,” Muir said. “If Idaho potatoes means quality, Idaho implies quality as a brand. There are not too many states that can actually refer to their state as a brand. Idaho is one of those unique states.”
The Idaho potato industry through the IPC has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the years promoting the Idaho potato brand and that has resulted in a benefit to spud growers as well as the state itself, Muir said.
“When you hear Idaho, it’s a strong opinion in consumers’ minds,” he said. “We believe that has created an economic benefit not only to potato growers in Idaho but to the whole state. I believe we’ve created an agriculture halo for beef, for dairy, for wine, for all sorts of (other) commodities and agricultural products in Idaho.”
“It is a great brand,” said Sen. Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg, who grew up on a potato farm. “We appreciate our potato growers throughout the state for what they do.”
Sen. Van Burtenshaw, chairman of the Senate ag committee and a farmer and rancher from Terreton, concluded Muir’s presentation in the Senate by saying, “God bless the Idaho potato.”
Because the potato brand means so much to the state’s important spud industry, Muir said, the commission also aggressively defends it against improper uses.
In order to carry the “Grown in Idaho” seal, a bag of potatoes must have been grown in Idaho and the IPC continuously looks out for violations of that rule and challenges them, he said.
Because of the unique soil conditions in areas where spuds are grown here, DNA tests can even be used to determine if a potato was grown in Idaho, Muir said.
“The Idaho brand is so popular,” Sen. Jim Patrick, a Republican farmer from Twin Falls, told Muir “You do have a good brand and it takes a lot to protect it.”
Randy Hardy, a potato grower from Oakley, said Idaho is at a disadvantage to other potato-growing states because the state is so far from major population centers and the power of the Idaho power potato brand is the equalizer.
“I think the power of the Idaho potato brand is what separates us from everybody else,” he said.
“Idaho is a mystical place when it comes to potatoes. Let’s keep it that way,” Muir said.
Despite myriad challenges posed by the government-ordered shutdowns related to COVID-19, 2020 was a good year revenue-wise for Idaho’s potato farmers, Muir said.
Idaho potato growers brought in an estimated $1.1 billion in farm-cash receipts last year, according to estimates by University of Idaho agricultural economists. If realized, that would be a record for potato revenue in Idaho.
That revenue will benefit much more than just potato growers, Muir said, because according to a study by U of I researchers, Idaho’s potato crop results in another $4 billion in added value to the state from the various facilities that process spuds.
“You have $5 billion every year coming into Idaho because of potatoes,” he said.
Hitting a record for potato revenue was no easy task last year because of the serious challenges posed by the COVID-related shutdowns, particularly in the foodservice industry, Muir told lawmakers.
About 60 percent of the spuds grown in Idaho end up in foodservice channels such as the restaurant industry, which ground to a halt because of the shutdowns.
At the same time, potato sales at the retail level exploded, but there was no easy way to shift all of the suddenly unneeded supply destined for foodservice channels to retail, Muir said.
The IPC worked with potato shippers and industry partners in the retail and foodservice industries to move a large amount of spuds to grocery stores, where consumers were scooping them up almost as fast as they arrived.
“This moved a lot of potatoes,” Muir said. At a minimum, he added, those efforts helped shift 40 million pounds of potatoes from foodservice channels to the retail market.
In the early part of 2020, potato growers were looking at record prices but then prices tanked when the COVID shutdowns hit, Hardy said. However, they rebounded in the latter part of 2020 and “it was actually a pretty good year,” he added.
But that doesn’t mean all is rosy in the potato industry right now, Hardy said.
While potato sales at the retail level are still up significantly compared to previous years, the restaurant industry is still feeling major impacts from the shutdowns and that is still posing a problem for the domestic potato industry, he said.
“The restaurant (demand) is deader than a doornail; right now it’s really slow,” Hardy said. “Retail’s still good but it’s not making up for what we’re not selling in foodservice.”
The quality of Idaho’s 2020 potato crop was excellent, Hardy said.
“We have probably one of the higher quality crops Idaho has ever seen … and the market’s not needing it right now,” he said.