Direct sales and combined shipping strategies get small spuds to customers
By JOHN O'CONNELL
Recent growth at Southwind Farms in Heyburn, Idaho, should make it the nation's second largest supplier of fingerling potatoes this season.
With names such as Ruby Crescent, Purple Peruvian and Russian Banana, the long and slender specialty spuds with vibrant-colored skin and flesh are becoming staples on cooking shows and high-end restaurant menus.
Nonetheless, fingerlings have a niche market and would be impractical to ship through traditional means. So the partners who own Southwind have adopted a unique sales strategy, enabling their product to reach customers while lending variety to big Russet orders.
They sell their fingerlings directly to Wada Farms Marketing Group, Potandon Produce, Wilcox Fresh and Sun-Glo of Idaho, which stick a few pallets of the specialty spuds in with customers' Russet shipments.
Kevin Stanger, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Wada Farms, said his operation produces its own red, yellow and petite potatoes. Due to the specialized equipment and know-how required to grow fingerlings, they rely solely on Southwind for those varieties.
"It's been a very good marriage," Stanger said. "We can supply our customers kind of a full gamut of product."
Frank Muir, president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission, said fingerlings and other specialty varieties fill a critical need, though they represent less than 5 percent of the Idaho potato market. For the past nine years, Muir said he's been pushing Idaho to become more than just a Russet state.
"We're well known for our Russets, but we believe we can leverage our famous Russet to expand our potato portfolio," Muir said. "Our objective was not to have every Idaho grower growing specialty varieties. We just needed enough so we could become a one-stop shop state for all potato varieties."
Muir considers the partnerships between Southwind and fresh-pack facilities to be "a smart way of working together, and that's what we've encouraged the industry to do in Idaho."
Travis Blacker, president of the Idaho Grower Shippers Association, praised the pairing.
"The quality of (fingerlings) is pretty fantastic. I think they almost touch every potato before it goes into a bag. The bigger sheds they're running a lot of volumes. It's something I don't think they were really able to get into, but they want to serve their customers."
Robert and Jerry Tominaga started Southwind on 4 acres with partner Rod Lake. They now plant 450 acres, all fingerlings.
Lake explained barriers to entering the fingerling market are extreme. Southwind has invested $1 million in its operation during the past two years alone. Fingerlings require sandy soils and special harvesting equipment due to their small size and odd shape. They break dormancy early in storage, and they require specialized packing equipment.
"We're still even after 11 years learning how to take care of them," Lake said.
Lake knows of one small Idaho operation that also grows fingerlings and a half dozen other producers with notable volume scattered throughout New York, Wisconsin, Colorado and California.