Most Popular Vegetable

Finding the right way to market potatoes

Published online: Jun 01, 2020 Articles Buzz Shahan, Chief Operating Officer, United Potato Growers of America
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This article appears in the June 2020 issue of Potato Grower.

David awoke one day to learn that he’d just inherited his grandfather’s Idaho farm. David’s mother was raised on that farm but had left it a generation ago to attend college. She met David’s father, a Chicago boy, while in college; David, the inheritor, was the result. Since his father was a city boy, David was raised a city boy. His mother never spoke badly of the farm; it was a dairy farm and she grew up performing chores that go along with milking cows. While those memories didn’t exactly excite young David as she recounted them, learning about her father and knowing him did excite David.

Where David’s father and the fathers of his neighborhood friends wore suits and ties to work and had pale complexions and small, well-manicured hands, Grandpa had large, strong hands, seemingly made of leather and with a face to match. Grandpa’s voice was strong, too, and offered strong opinions, opinions that did not change with the audience. Grandpa was impressive, memorable. So were his horses, dogs, shotguns, hunting rifles, and Jeep and pickup truck. So were his boat and tractors and the mounted elk’s head with antlers that spanned the wall of the room that contained his shotguns and hunting rifles, the same room where young David and Grandpa watched rodeos and football on TV.

Life for David has been a glide: He was a boy in the example of his parents; good grades, Eagle Scout, University of Chicago economics major, Harvard MBA with a career in marketing, actually as a marketing consultant for large firms such as IBM, Toyota and General Mills. A great life, but not Grandpa’s life.

With so many potato suppliers there must be a mechanism, an organization, a system of monitoring supply such that markets receive a coordinated supply. This is fundamental stuff. 

Rather than sell Grandpa’s farm or lease it out, David considers farming it himself. Dairy farming is out. Researching other crop-mix possibilities, he quickly discards commodity crops like wheat and corn—government-controlled with no upside. Looking around, almost all neighboring farms grow potatoes. Looking into potatoes, David discovers that potatoes are America’s favorite vegetable, and his farm sits right in the middle of potato country. How lucky is that?

At church David inquires as to who among the congregation is a farmer, especially a potato farmer. Harold is pointed out as the largest potato producer in the area. David approaches him, introduces himself, briefly describes his situation, and sets a date to stop by Harold’s farm for a visit.

With David’s superb marketing background, upon visiting Harold his first question is, “Tell me, Harold, how do you market your potatoes?”

“What do you mean, ‘How do I market my potatoes?”

“What I mean is, with so many potato suppliers, there must be a mechanism, an organization, a system of monitoring supply such that markets receive a coordinated supply. This is the way everyone who is part of a supply chain runs their business. This is fundamental stuff. Without it, your farm is a crapshoot, not a business.”

“No, we don’t do supply-chain stuff, whatever that is. Every man just does what he can.”

“That doesn’t make sense. You’re providing consumers their favorite vegetable, their favorite dish. Surely you get together to monitor and measure supply and demand values so that you can protect your business investment, while at the same time assuring that your customers have a secure supply?”

“No, we don’t do that,” Harold responds, scratching his chin, “But if we did, how would something like that work?”