Fingerling potatoes

From left: Jerry Tominaga, Rod Lake and Robert Tominaga of Southwind Farms.

Hard-to-harvest, yield-challenged fingerling potatoes have kept Southwind Farms Inc. in growth mode for 20 years.

Brothers Robert and Jerry Tominaga, and friend Rod Lake, own Heyburn, Idaho-based Southwind, which in 2019 operated just over 700 commercial and seed acres.

“We primarily sell to foodservice, with a small presence in retail and processed fingerlings,” Robert Tominaga said.

Idaho produces nearly one-third of U.S. potatoes, the state Department of Agriculture says, including the well-known Russet among more than 30 varieties. Fingerlings are part of the specialty segment, which the Idaho Potato Commission says comprises less than 10% of the market but is growing.

Southwind has increased acreage almost every year, Tominaga said. Though small as grower-shippers go, it increased full-time employment from three at the outset to the current 40.

“We did a large expansion and renovation about four years ago, and are currently contemplating another upgrade in equipment, to accommodate our customers’ ever-changing tastes,” he said.

Trends include demand for smaller potatoes and package sizes, and large-scale buyers “wanting to get closer to the grower-shipper, closer to the dirt” rather than working with an intermediary, Tominaga said.

“We plan to increase acres and varieties next season, but are very cautious of not flooding the market,” he said. “It is still a niche segment of the overall potato category.”

Narrow, 2- to 4.5-inch-long fingerlings comprise about 3% of U.S. potato production, he said. The category has been growing as restaurants and TV cooking shows promote specialty potatoes.

Southwind also sells “small rounds,” another specialty variety, to selected re-packers.

Idaho Potato Commission Retail Vice President Seth Pemsler said Southwind has helped drive demand for fingerlings through its own growth, innovation and marketing.

“It is very much a value-added segment,” he said. “You buy them for a specific purpose. Chefs love them.”

Fingerlings can retail for more than three times the price of russets per pound. Pemsler said they exemplify a specialty item that moves from fine-dining to family restaurants and grocery stores as it develops a following.

Tominaga said fingerling quality “has to be almost impeccable because of the very high price.” Factors in the price premium, in addition to the requisite “eye appeal,” include a texture that enables them to hold up well in soups and stews.

Potato Growers of Idaho Executive Director Keith Esplin said a few farms in the state grow fingerlings, a niche but fairly high-value market.

Challenges include additional land preparation, and narrower harvest gear that won’t separate dirt from the tuber if used improperly. “On the other hand, anything people can do to differentiate a product and create a market, we support,” he said.

Tominaga said fingerlings cost about two and a half times as much to grow and harvest than Russets, and yield about one-third as much. All of Southwind’s harvest equipment comes from Europe.

“Ours are two-row harvesters instead of the typical four- to six-row harvesters,” he said. “To fill a truck, we have to dig a lot more rows.”

There are some advantages.

“We do harvest sooner because we kill the vine down when they are smaller,” Tominaga said. That can reduce the odds of damage from early frost.

Southwind operates in one of south-central Idaho’s warmer spots.

The Tominagas transitioned out of Russets and into fingerlings full-time over about six years. A mid-1990s initial look at a Russian Banana-variety fingerling prompted exploration of the market, and field techniques.

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