The Idaho Potato Commission is working creatively and hard to put Idaho potatoes on the U.S. and world maps.
Take IPC’s retail display competition, for example. More than 5,000 retailers from coast to coast participated in the 2016 event, which featured $200,000 in cash and prizes.
This was the competition’s 25th anniversary, and it’s one of the many ways IPC promotes Idaho-grown spuds.
In turn, IPC’s work helps to bolster everything from family and company-owned farms to processing facilities and trucking companies.
Retailers who participated in the 2016 event reported an increase in potato sales as they went out of their way to create elaborate displays.
“Our customers loved the Western theme, and we saw higher sales of almost 8%,” says Paul Tuason, produce manager of the San Diego Naval Base Commissary.
Adds participant Cristian Rodriguez, produce manager at the Grocery Depot in Williston, Fla.: “The display was something very cool to do, and I got a lot of good comments from customers.”
SPUD SENSATION: “The owner of the tractors and I sat in the tractors just for the photo — we usually had bears in the seats,” quips Mike Dyer, produce manager of the Reno, Nev., Raley’s supermarket that placed first in a contest to promote Idaho potatoes.
The Idaho Potato Lover's display at one of the Raley’s supermarkets in Reno, Nev., took up a huge chunk of floor space with two old tractors, a supersized Idaho russet perched on the back of a red truck and “It’s Real Love” Idaho potato posters.
Rounding out the display were a variety of fresh Idaho spuds, processed potatoes and buttery spread and bacon bits from the other two sponsors, Country Crock and Hormel.
“We brought the tractors in through the front door of the store. It was really tight, but we got them in, and our customers thought it was awesome,” says Raley’s produce manager Mike Dyer, sporting a cowboy hat and denim overalls.
The first-place winners in the three retail and two military categories each pocketed $2,000, with cash prizes being awarded through 10th place and honorable mention.
“It’s always inspiring to see how much these wonderful Idaho potato displays help our retailers boost sales from mid-January through mid-March, which has tended to be a slower time for potatoes,” says Jamie Bowen, IPC marketing manager. “In 2016, we were especially impressed by the many great entries from military commissaries in their separate contest. They really outdid themselves.”
Another highly visible promotion is the Big Idaho Potato Truck, which is now entering its sixth year. The semi and specially designed trailer — which displays a 12,000-pound potato — are 72 feet long. Among its coast-to-coast stops are professional rodeos, an Irish festival in Ohio, a blueberry fest in Indiana, and football games — including the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise (the Dec. 22 game pitted the University of Idaho Vandals against the Colorado State University Rams; the Vandals won, 61-50).
“The Big Idaho Potato Truck has become the cornerstone of IPC’s marketing program,” says Frank Muir IPC president and CEO.
IPC also promotes homegrown spuds to international markets — in part by hosting potential buyers to the Gem State, where they participate in everything from potato sack races to tours of farms, processing plants and storage facilities.
IPC leaders also join industry representatives from Idaho, Washington, Oregon and other Western states during trade missions abroad. In November, they traveled to China and Taiwan, in part to attend an international fruit and vegetable show.
SCOUTING FOR SPUDS: Girl Scouts across the country can earn the Idaho Potato Patch badge.
Girls Scouts and a potato patch
Potato growers throughout the region have a truckload of friends promoting their spuds locally, nationally and internationally. In fact, it’s a semiload.
Among the state organizations are the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, Idaho Grower Shippers Association, Idaho Potato Commission, Montana Potato Advisory Committee, Oregon Potato Commission and Washington State Potato Commission.
And there are regional and national organizations including the National Potato Council, Potatoes USA, the Western Growers Association and Western United States Agricultural Trade Association.
But growers have many other friends who are quietly promoting their spuds, too, like Sherry Thomas of Caldwell, Idaho, who developed the Idaho Potato Patch Program for the Girl Scouts of Silver Sage Council.
Brownie, Junior, Cadette and Senior Girl Scouts across the country can earn the Idaho Potato Patch badge by completing a number of requirements. Among them are learning the parts of a potato and potato flower, the life cycle of the potato, how farmers plant potatoes and how the plant makes potatoes in the ground.
They can also host a potato party and play a variety of potato games, including potato hopscotch, musical spuds, pickup chips, potato relays — and that game everyone knows, hot potato. You know: "One potato, two potatoes, three potatoes, more."
“Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington have the Oregon Trail badge, so I thought that Idaho should have a special badge,” Thomas says. “Since Idaho is famous for its potatoes, why not a potato badge?”
Thomas notes that she developed the Idaho Potato Patch Program in part to enable Girl Scouts to explore science, math, art, literature, music, cooking and games relating to the potato. Girls also have the opportunity to develop a community service project involving potato growing, and some of those spuds are donated to people in need.
“It was a really fun program to build, and I also enjoyed designing the patch,” Thomas says. “I encourage Girl Scouts across the country to earn this patch. And when they do, they are helping to promote our famous Idaho potatoes.”
To learn more about the program, Google "Girl Scouts" and "Idaho potato patch."
Will Farmer Mark find his missing truck?
The Idaho Potato Commission is nationally known for its clever marketing, including its popular TV commercials featuring Farmer Mark and his ongoing search for the elusive Big Idaho Potato Truck.
SPUD SEARCH: Caldwell, Idaho, farmer Mark Coombs is known around the country as Farmer Mark, the face of the Idaho Potato Commission, who continues his search for the elusive Big Idaho Potato Truck.
The commercials made their debut in 2012 during the first Big Idaho Potato Truck Tour, and commercials that began airing in November on several national cable networks marked the sixth installment.
“Since we launched the campaign, we’ve received thousands of calls from folks all across the country with updates on the truck’s whereabouts,” says Frank Muir, IPC’s president and CEO.
“One of the reasons that the commercials have been so effective is because of the incredible consumer engagement component reinforced by the truck’s nationwide tour, when it was seen by tens of millions of people of all ages.”
Farmer Mark is real-life farmer Mark Coombs, a Caldwell, Idaho, native who has been growing potatoes, corn and wheat for 30 years. He served on the Idaho Potato Commission board for seven years, and is actively involved in other industry organizations dedicated to growing outstanding spuds.
Nine commissioners direct IPC
The Idaho Potato Commission is a state agency that is responsible for both promoting and protecting the famous "Grown in Idaho" seal and Idaho potatoes, which are both registered trademarks.
IPC receives a tax (currently 12.5 cents for every 100 pounds of spuds grown in the state) to promote Idaho-grown potatoes and also conduct research on potential markets.
Operating since 1937, IPC is directed by nine commissioners, including five potato growers, two of whom represent the packing and shipping industries and two of whom are from processing.
Current members are Nick Blanksma of Legacy Farms, Hammett; Tommy Brown of Lamb Weston, Pocatello; Mike Christensen of Christensen Farms, Melba; Peggy Grover of Bench Mark Potato Co., Rexburg; Randy Hardy of Hardy Farms, Oakley; James Hoff of Hoff Farms, Idaho Falls; Dan Nakamura of Idahoan Foods LLC, Pocatello; Ritchey Toevs of Toevs Farms, Aberdeen; and Lynn Wilcox of Wilcox, Floyd & Sons, Rexburg.
NEW LEADERS: Ritchey Toevs (right) and Lynn Wilcox are the new chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Idaho Potato Commission.
Toevs and Wilcox were appointed chair and vice chair, respectively, in September.
“While serving as commissioners for several years, both Ritchey and Lynn have proven themselves to be outstanding leaders and true advocates of the Idaho potato industry,” says IPC President and CEO Frank Muir.