Small potatoes gain ground, profits
Fingerling potatoes see growth in varieties, acres
By JOHN O'CONNELL
Fingerling potato growers say they're expanding both acreage and varieties of the slender, colorful spuds to meet increasing demand.
Rod Lake, a partner in Southwind Farms in Heyburn, Idaho, said his operation has expanded a bit this year, though he didn't disclose exact acreage.
"This last year has been very good," Lake said. "(Fingerlings) are gaining popularity and our business continues to grow. More and more people are finding out about them."
Southwind, which supplies the majority of Idaho fingerlings, is also trying a couple of new varieties developed through the Idaho-Washington-Oregon Tri-State potato breeding program. For a second year, it has planted Purple Police, which Lake said has a better flavor than the most common purple fingerling, Purple Peruvian. In the first year of planting it, however, he found his yields were low.
"The verdict is still out on it," Lake said.
Next season, Lake intends to plant AmaRosa, a Tri-State variety with red skin and flesh that resembles a slice of pepperoni when cut.
Scott Pursel, a vice president at Lehr Brothers/Big L Packing in Bakersfield, Calif., said his business is increasing fingerling acreage by 30 percent this season.
"Over the last five years, there's been a steady increase of demand," Pursel said.
He's growing three new proprietary varieties developed by the Specialty Potato Alliance, a group of fingerling growers and distributors with headquarters in New Jersey and Vernon, Calif. He considers the new varieties -- Rockey Rose, Red Rebel and Merlot -- to be improvements on the old standbys.
"They're going to be more uniform in size and they're going to cook more evenly," Pursel said.
Richard Leibowitz, managing director of Specialty Potato Alliance, said the new varieties were developed by member Sheldon Rockey of Center, Colo., and are available to SPA members only. Leibowitz has worked with some Idaho and Washington packing facilities to distribute the new fingerlings.
He said Red Rebel has dark red skin with yellow flesh mottled with red. Merlot has burgundy skin and flesh and tastes good, unlike most purple spuds, Leibowitz said. He described Rockey Rose as pink-skinned with brilliant yellow flesh and "the finest flavor we've ever tasted."
"I think there are a lot of people out there who have yet to taste these products. I don't think it's a fully developed market yet," Leibowitz said.
Seth Pemsler, vice president, retail-international with the Idaho Potato Commission, said acreage at Southwind seems to grow every year, and he sees great potential for fingerlings to continue growing.
"Go back five years ago. Who had ever heard of a fingerling? And now if you go to a high-end restaurant most serve something with fingerlings," Pemsler said. "Typically food trends begin in high-end restaurants and, where feasible, they're translated down to casual dining and quick-serve restaurants."