John O’Connell/Capital Press
FORT HALL, Idaho — The Idaho Potato Commission is collaborating with researchers, major buyers, growers and shippers to address recent quality concerns about some of the state’s fresh potato shipments.
Much of the discussion during IPC’s Nov. 14 Big Idaho Potato Harvest Meeting, hosted at the Shoshone-Bannock Hotel and Event Center, focused on the need to reduce bruising and other imperfections in fresh shipments.
IPC President and CEO Frank Muir explained the commission is partnering with Walmart and a major food service buyer to learn more about the causes of quality problems, in response to an increasing number of customer complaints since the 2015 harvest.
Muir said IPC also plans to conduct quality-improvement workshops for growers and shippers, is developing a handbook outlining best practices for handling potatoes and has commissioned University of Idaho potato researchers Nora Olsen and Mike Thornton to study the supply chain and determine causes of damage.
“When you have a premium brand, it has got to be backed up with premium quality,” Muir said, after reading complaints from buyers left on social media and IPC’s voice mail. “We can’t rest on our laurels. We have got to always be improving.”
Muir cited statistics showing rapidly growing demand for Idaho potatoes. Last season the state shipped a record volume of fresh potatoes, up 12 percent from the prior year. He said he’d hate to see any perceived quality problems affect that growth trend.
Armand Lobato, IPC’s food service and promotion director for the West, said he’s most concerned about customers who aren’t complaining but may simply shift their business.
“For the most part, we’re pretty darned good, but if we’re at all tempted to compromise that quality, that’s letting our opponent back in the game,” Lobato said.
Olsen and Thornton started their special project for the commission in August. The researchers gathered data during potato harvest using a ball with sensors to simulate bruising. They’ve also studied reports from retailers who rejected Idaho potato shipments during 2016 to identify commonalities, and they have used their data to develop a list of 10 ways growers and shippers can reduce bruising. They advised the industry to take steps such as adding padding to harvesting equipment, reducing the height from which potatoes fall within equipment, harvesting when soil conditions are appropriate and paying close attention to humidity and temperature in storage.
The researchers plan to track several potato shipments from throughout the season, working closely with retailers and buyers and meeting shipments at their destinations to evaluate where problems may be occurring.
“As the 2017 crop is shipped, we will go to distribution centers and look at quality when it is shipped from Idaho and look at quality when it arrives,” Thornton said.
Thornton believes extreme temperature fluctuations during recent harvests could be complicating matters. He also noted farms now harvest higher-yielding crops from far more acres.
“We’re using bigger equipment,” Thornton said. “We’re pushing this crop harder and harder.”