Mar./Apr. 2008 California Country magazine
By Christine Souza
California-grown potatoes of different shapes, sizes and colors appeal to America’s increasingly playful palate.
New varieties turn a staple into one hot potato
To get ahead in business, sometimes you have to take a five-and-a-half-hour road trip. And that's exactly what third-generation potato farmer Dan Chin did a couple of years ago, when he and other growers from California's far northern border personally delivered a truckload of Klamath Pearl potatoes to top chefs throughout San Francisco. Their goal: to learn how to market their new specialty variety.
"We actually took 20-pound boxes of Klamath Pearls on a cart and went to downtown San Francisco to high-end chefs and went in the back door and presented them with the potatoes," Chin said. "It was quite an experience to talk to these innovative people. We got good feedback from all of the chefs. They liked the Klamath Pearls and cooked them in many different ways. They felt if we believed in that potato enough to bring it to their doorstep, they were willing to try it. It was pretty exciting for us, being country folks, to go into the city and capture some of that."
Chin, whose family has grown, packed and shipped potatoes since about the time of the Great Depression, decided some 10 years ago that he would try something new--a line of specialty potatoes in different shapes, sizes and colors to appeal to America's increasingly playful palate.
And Chin isn't the only one. A number of other California growers are expanding their line of products beyond what has been the standard spud--the familiar russets, whites and reds.
"Now when you go into the grocery store, more and more you are seeing wide varieties of specialty potatoes," said Richard Slusarz, executive chef at the Grand Hyatt in San Francisco, who specializes in California cuisine. "Before you would see a russet, maybe you'd see some new red potatoes, new whites, but you really wouldn't see banana fingerlings, purple potatoes and Yukon Golds. Now you can find them at your average market.
"There's no question that consumers are becoming more affluent when it comes to food," the chef said. "Clearly consumers are more knowledgeable and I think people who cook at home tend to be a little bit more adventurous. They want to try different things."
Potatoes are America's most popular vegetable, with the average consumer eating 126 pounds per year, although consumption is now at its lowest level since 1990 and is half of what it was in 1960. However, growers like Chin believe that specialty potato varieties are adding life to a slowly eroding market. Thanks to their efforts, the number of named potato varieties is now in the hundreds.
"What does the consumer want? That's always been our biggest question," Chin said. "We grow a lot of different potatoes, and I think we've come to somewhat of a conclusion that they do want a good-tasting potato and they want it quick and easy to prepare, so that's the way we approach some of our marketing."
Chin grows conventional and organic specialty potatoes in the Klamath Basin of California and Oregon. In addition to the organic Klamath Pearl, which can be found at retailers such as Trader Joe's, he raises baby white and baby red fingerling potatoes. His Klamath Ruby is a new fingerling that is red on the outside and yellow on the inside.
University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor Harry Carlson, who accompanied Chin to San Francisco to meet the region's culinary artists, has been working with growers to help them market the Klamath Pearl.
"I became interested in the notion of value-added products and trying to break away from selling potatoes based on a commodity price. That was always problematic for growers," said Carlson, who is director of the UC Intermountain Research & Extension Center in Tulelake. "They would basically grow a crop and would have to take whatever price was offered to them. That price would go up and down and led to quite a bit of instability in farming. We were hoping to create a market niche for a product that would have a more stable price and a higher return to the grower. That is how we started looking for a new potato variety."
In his search for the perfect potato, Carlson traveled to Europe where he discovered a different style of merchandising in the produce section.
"Europe's potato display is very different than in the U.S., with a large number of different varieties that are sold by variety name and maybe even the location of where they were grown," Carlson said. "We really felt that that was the coming trend. With the Klamath Pearl, we were trying to package it in a way that consumers could readily distinguish it from other potatoes. We're going toward that and we will probably see that in other vegetable crops as well."
When searching thousands of varieties of potatoes for the perfect one, Carlson, Chin and the other growers take into consideration a certain type of consumer--one who would appreciate a variety for its gourmet qualities and ease of preparation.
"What we are really trying to capture with some of these specialty potatoes is it has to look good on the shelf, but it also has to perform," Chin said. "It has to taste good with a unique flavor."
Potato pioneer Rob Campbell spent about two decades developing his Sierra Gold variety, which touts a hardy skin and a sweet, buttery flavor.
After a limited launch last year, the Klamath Pearl is now being distributed nationally.
Modoc County grower Rob Campbell is another of California's potato pioneers. His Sierra Gold, a cross between a russet and yellow-fleshed varieties, debuted in 2003 after a long and sometimes discouraging quest.
"To be honest, it has been the biggest challenge of my life," said Campbell, vice president and general manager of Discovery Gardens, an Oakdale-based subsidiary of Kern County-based S.A. Camp, one of the state's leading potato producers.
Campbell left his family farm in Michigan 30 years ago to grow potatoes in California, but he soon became frustrated that the varieties he could plant prioritized grower needs, such as improved yields. The second-generation grower wanted to find potatoes with more consumer appeal, including consistency and improved color and taste.
That's what lead Campbell to contact an acclaimed plant breeder at Texas A&M University. After much trial and error, the Sierra Gold seed was finally developed in 1991, but the potato itself didn't reach the market for another dozen years.
The result of Campbell's long journey is a versatile vegetable with a consistent taste, a sweet, buttery flavor and a hardy skin. Packaging is another consumer-friendly feature. The tubers are the only brand sold in the United States that come in a resealable plastic bag. They're available nationwide and in Canada, with key California retailers that include Albertsons, Stater Bros., Raley's, Save Mart, Vons and Nugget.
Bolstered by the success of this potato--from 10 acres harvested the first year to 1,200 acres harvested this past year--Campbell has his sights on several new goals, including the launch of his Sierra Rose, a more flavorful red-skinned potato. He also hopes to be a mentor to his 18-month-old grandson, Brody.
The Klamath Pearl potato, show flowering, flourishes in the high desert region of the Klamath Basin that straddles the California-Oregon border.
"If I have anything to say about it, he'll definitely be a potato grower," Campbell said.
The little boy will likely have an appreciative audience, as the market for specialty potatoes is increasing every year. Carlson says that consumers appreciate the appearance, taste and quick-cooking attributes as well as the health benefits that come with these colorful varieties.
"Any vegetable with color--skin or flesh--is going to be higher in antioxidants and perhaps vitamin content like carotene, but this varies from one potato variety to the next. Not all yellow potatoes have the same nutrient values," he said.
Slusarz, the San Francisco chef, says that the potato's health attributes come as a surprise for some.
"People want to eat healthy," he said. "Initially a potato can be a turnoff for someone. 'Oh, the potato has starch. I can't eat it.' But there are a lot of ways to prepare it and control the portion so that it doesn't come off as something that they can't eat."
Christine Souza is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.