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New school spud

Idaho Potato Commission battles for relevancy

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Once a year, someone from the Idaho Potato Commission shows up at Boise Co-op, clipboard in hand, to put eyes on the tubers.

"They check how we're displaying them," said Roben Latham, Co-op produce manager and buyer. "Mostly, they're looking at our signs, and I think they're looking at the quality of the product."

The potato inspectors also ensure that all of the potatoes are labeled with a state of origin, and that the Idaho Potato Commission has certified any Idaho-grown potatoes on display.

Farmers cannot grow the state vegetable for commercial purposes unless they participate in the commission's marketing efforts through a potato tax.

"I've seen some really nice fresh potatoes that I would love to sell, but for them to have to pay, they would make no profit and that I find discriminating," Latham said.

Earlier this month, the Idaho Potato Commission moved to force the Idaho Fry Company, a new, independently owned Boise burger joint that specializes in fries, to change its name. News of the crackdown spread via Twitter and Facebook and caused a media stir, giving one of the nation's oldest and, by many accounts, most successful commodity promoters, a black eye.

The commission, which, along with J.R. Simplot and McDonald's, made Idaho potatoes famous, holds a certification mark on the term "Idaho" when used in conjunction with the name of any potato product. It was registered, like a trademark, with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 1966 and updated in 2004. But the commission claims first use on the terms back to July 1, 1939.

"Everybody would like to call their potatoes 'Idaho,' but only one-third of the potatoes in the Unites States come from Idaho," said Frank Muir, executive director of the commission. "All this Twittering that's going on right now, that's become testimony that if we don't protect it they'll say, 'they're letting a restaurant use "Idaho" in a name that doesn't even use Idaho potatoes.'"

The Potato Commission has been aggressive in defending its name over the years. With a $13 million annual budget, the commission has taken on some of the largest vegetable packers and resellers on the East Coast.

A 1997 New York Times story about Hapco Farms, supplier for the Publix supermarket chain, suggested that the Idaho Potato Commission was canceling contracts with resellers in an attempt to push anyone selling non-Idaho potatoes out of business. Also in 1997, the Potato Commission sued M&M Farms, another New York potato dealer that was accused of packing non-Idaho potatoes in Idaho bags. In retaliation, Hapco, M&M, Majestic Produce Corp. and G&T Terminal Packing, sought to cancel the Potato Commission certification marks arguing, among other things, that the commission was misusing its marks and that the Idaho potato had become generic.

Though the commission has managed to keep its rights to the Idaho potato mark, the cases are not fully settled and Muir fears that any slip in their defenses would give the out-of-state resellers an additional reason to push cancellation.

But there are other grumblings about Potato Commission dealings closer to home.

A growing number of Idaho farmers are turning to organic and specialty potatoes, and some say the commission has been slow to expand the notion of an Idaho spud.

"They don't promote organic potatoes, so why do I send my money to them if they don't promote organic potatoes," asked Nate Jones, an organic spud farmer in King Hill.

Jones pays $100 a year to the Potato Commission for use of the Idaho Potato certification and he reluctantly submits his potato taxes--12.5 cents per 100 pounds packed--though he feels he is small potatoes and the tax is not entirely fair.

"The last couple of years, I have been sending them a small check," Jones said.

Other, even smaller farmers, don't want to invest in the grading machinery and labeling regimen that comes with commission certification and thus can't access markets like Boise Co-op, which specialize in local produce.

Ken Mulberry of Wild Country Organic in Kimberly thinks the Potato Commission lost sight of its mission in the 1990s, though he says it has improved recently.

"They've become more interested in enforcing and punishing than advertising and promoting," Mulberry said.

Mulberry lost his license to pack potatoes some years ago and went to court to get it back. At issue, according to Mulberry, was the very image of the Idaho potato: the Russet Burbank variety, which is the classic Idaho baker.

"There's a lot of new varieties that are being developed that ought to be tried," Mulberry said.

Though he still has complaints--the commission recently forced him to remake the stamp he uses on his potato boxes because it was a half-inch too small--he says the commission, under Muir, is heading in the right direction.

"I take my hat off to them for their new focus; they are getting back to promoting," he said.

Muir said that purple potatoes and fingerlings, and yellow and red potatoes can all be Idaho potatoes.

"Idaho has only in the last five years been growing those," he said. "We do want to be the one-stop-shop state for all potatoes."

He said it is the growers who started the commission in 1937, and growers and packers fully fund it today. From September 2008 until February, an Idaho potato ad ran on national cable networks featuring fitness guru Denise Austin standing in a potato field touting the health benefits of Idaho potatoes.

The organic and specialty markets have not gotten large enough to warrant their own television commercials, Muir said.

But the commission could take a lesson from the Idaho Fry Company in potato promotion. The restaurant offers dozens of different fries, from yams and purple potatoes to Yukons and even Russets, depending upon what is available and fresh. Each offering is labeled with the type of potato and where the potatoes were grown.

Muir says Idaho potatoes have a better texture--starchier and fluffier--than other states' spuds, and that distinguished palates can tell the difference.

Not so, says Idaho Fry Company co-owner and chef Riley Huddleston. Once fried and seasoned, there is no distinguishable difference between a standard Idaho and Washington spud.

But there is one Idaho potato that Huddleston favors, and it's one that Jack Simplot may have not have even recognized as a potato: Mike Heath's all blues, sold as Sunset Butte Organics and grown in Buhl.

"His purple Peruvians, you can definitely tell they have a lot more flavor and they crisp up better," Huddleston said.

Heath, for his part, would like more local customers for his purples and red ladies and he said the commission has shown some interest in his operation.

"They've been around to visit," Heath said. "They certainly are friendly and interested."

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