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Carter and USPB concerned with domestic potato consumption

Potato sales for U.S. growers pose interesting questions. Eighteen percent of the crop is exported, but statistics on domestic potato consumption create a mystery, according to Mike Carter, co-chair of the domestic marketing committee for the U.S. Potato Board and a member of the board's executive committee.

Carter, who is also the chief executive officer of Bushmans' Inc., located in Rosholt, WI, said that "overall meal occasions" for U.S. consumers to use potatoes have gone up, but domestic consumption "by volume is down [and] that is counter-intuitive."

One explanation of the contradiction is that "as family sizes have shrunk, and with the economic realignment since 2008, consumers are more frugal." Instead of buying a 10-pound bag of potatoes and eventually throwing out four pounds of old potatoes from that bag, they buy less volume but consume all they buy.

"I am not convinced that people are eating less potatoes," Carter said. "Potatoes are America's favorite vegetable. More pounds are sold in produce that anything. They are cheap and they are healthy, so we have all of those things going for us. Are people eating less now than they were? Maybe, but it's not as bad as it sounds."

Still, he added, it's up to the board to "get people excited" about buying spuds.

The board has partnered with the Hungry Girl culinary organization to promote potatoes. This has exceeded Carter's expectations, as the consumer blog now has over 1 million followers. Hungry Girl also operates a Facebook page and reaches consumers through many media outlets. Hungry Girl's audience involves the female demographics that USPB has targeted.

Carter noted that if the board's efforts can promote one more potato eaten each week per consumer, sales are no longer a concern. This can be achieved by showing that potatoes are healthy and nutritious. Fears caused by "perceived negatives" that potatoes are fattening need to be removed. New specialty potato varieties need to be understood and will open new ways of consuming potatoes.

Key to accomplishing these objectives is for the USPB to create a new five-year marketing plan. Carter said this strategic review and adjusted plan is underway.

In recent years, the board had targeted "Linda" as its primary audience. Linda represents women in the age range of 20s to 50s who cook for their family. Carter said the new target audience may be narrowed to the age group of the 20s, as health-conscious young people are learning to cook. "We have to develop a new wave of consumers."

Carter added that digital media provide many opportunities to reach this group.

He noted that the USPB is not just promoting fresh domestic potato consumption but, among other efforts, export markets to ensure ongoing expansion of that critically important segment.