“Our customer base doesn’t vary much,” said Ryan Wahlen, sales manager at Pleasant Valley Potato Inc. in Aberdeen, ID. “We’ve got a really strong and loyal following and good customers — good, solid people.”
One reason for that, he explained, is they know they can count on Pleasant Valley for consistency in quality and supply of Russet Norkotah and Russet Burbank potatoes.
“What we tell people and I think it is true,” he said, “is that when you deal with a company that grows all of its own product, and you are dealing with the same grower who has been farming for generations,” and the potatoes are “coming from the same fields,” with the same soil and the same climate season after season, “then there is a consistent quality there, something that you can count on year after year.”
Whether it is a year when potato supplies are tight in the marketplace, as was the case a couple of years ago, “or a year like this when supplies are a little more plentiful,” he said, “you are still going to get the same quality of potatoes, and you are still going to know you have a guaranteed supply, whereas that is not always true with some of the larger marketing organizations. They pull from multiple shippers and multiple shipping points. That is not to say that the quality isn’t good, but there is definitely a difference in the growing areas.”
Another factor is that Pleasant Valley’s grower-owners grow specifically for the fresh market. They do not switch between fresh and processing in response to market conditions, as many growers do. “When you have growers like ours who own the company and are growing specifically for the fresh market, and especially when they have been doing it as long as ours have been doing it, that they know what they are doing, and they are going to raise a good quality fresh crop,” Mr. Wahlen said.
That does make a difference in the quality of the potatoes, he explained. “There is a big difference between guys who go back and forth between processing and fresh” and those who grow specifically for the fresh market. “It is a different way to farm. One way, you are trying to grow for yields, and you sacrifice the external quality” that the fresh market prefers. “The other, their focus is on the pack-out, and the external quality is paramount.”
That is “what we have to offer,” he continued. “I feel like that is our niche. The people that we deal with come to us because they know what to expect as far as quality, and they know that they can count on our supply.”
That said, “our business is very much relationship driven,” he said. “Most of our buyers have been out and spent time with us” on the farms and in the packinghouse. “There is not much turnover in our customer base, and we are grateful for that.”
At Pleasant Valley, “we are very aware that there is a lot of potatoes” in the market, Mr. Wahlen said. “And we are aware that customers have more choices between shippers than probably they have had in past years. We are grateful for the people that we do business with, and we are grateful for their loyalty and their friendship.”
Pleasant Valley is and has long been owned by four family farms: Kim Wahlen Farms, Val Wahlen Farms, Ray Duffin Farms and Barry Christensen & Sons. With only minor exceptions, they supply Pleasant Valley with basically 100 percent of what the company ships, according to Mr. Wahlen.
Pleasant Valley grows and packs only Russet Norkotahs and Russet Burbanks and ships Norkotahs much later into the season than most other Idaho shippers.
So far this year, “the market is not where we want it to be,” Mr. Wahlen said Nov. 20. “Pricing is such that the return to growers is below the cost of production, but I don’t think that is news to anybody. We are hopeful that this pricing will pick up in the spring.”
The company’s size profile in Norkotahs this year “is larger than it has been in past years, “and the quality has been very good,” he said. “That is one real positive.” When pack-outs “are very high,” it helps grower returns when the quality is also very good.