Maine's designer label takes on small potatoes

Sit down for this one, and perhaps raise a fork in protest.

As harvesting of the annual potato crop is finishing up now in Maine, some of those lowly spuds are headed to market in a nifty bag carrying a designer label.

Repeat. Potatoes with a designer label. What will they dig up next?

No, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren have not become potato farmers with dirt under their classy fingernails. Martha Stewart is not color-coordinating potato skins to match the curtains in your breakfast nook.

These Maine potatoes will be labeled "Premium Plus," a new spud rising above US No. 1 grade potatoes. They'll have fewer defects and will all be uniform in size.

According to Michael Corey, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, these taters are "designed for the person who prepares meals and doesn't want to bother with small potatoes."

Your standard bag of potatoes usually has a squirrely mix of small, medium, and large potatoes.

But elite Premium Plus potatoes - spuds measuring from 2-3/4 inches up to 3-1/2 inches in diameter - are as uniform as sourdough buns or rice balls and taste the same as regular potatoes.

The premium spuds can be baked and sliced open with a knife and smothered in butter or sour cream just like old-fashioned ones.

"We tested marketed these last year," says Mr. Corey, "and many people said they had been looking for this kind of packaging for years."

If less is more in architecture, then uniform is best in potatoes, say consumers. "This premium bag has just tightened the size down so the potatoes are more uniform," Corey says.

The eight-pound test bags sold for about $2.40 a bag, which is more than a 10-pound bag with the familiar irksome, odd-ball potatoes.

But each store will set its own price for the Premium Plus potatoes.

"Technically there are thousands of different potato varieties," says Wendy Jenkins of the National Potato Promotion Board in Denver, Colo., "and the constant effort is to improve growing techniques and respond to what the consumer wants."

Ms. Jenkins, who grew up next to a potato farm, says consumers don't want odd-sized potatoes with clumps of dirt attached.

"Even though I know that the mud that is left on potatoes after they are picked from the field will help prolong the life of a potato," she says, "the consumer looks at that as being dirty. In fact, dirt helps ... the potato by keeping the light away, but the consumer wants a clean, uniform potato."

As eaters in the US have become swift and impatient, the potato industry has managed to reverse the image of potato as a food that takes too long to cook, or is too fattening to consider.

In 1952 each adult American consumed about 94 pounds of potatoes, and by 1998 the amount jumped to 142 pounds, indicating considerable feasting on French fries and potato chips.

Potato farmers and distributors are hardly lying fallow as an industry, but digging in to respond to the needs of a fast-food environment.

Marketing Premium Plus potatoes is just one way to help a fragile industry respond to consumers even while farmers are adversely affected by bad weather and market conditions.

A number of publications and efforts are also in place to help share potato research and information throughout the industry.

There's Spudman Magazine, which identifies itself as the "Voice of the Potato Industry." The National Potato Promotion Board says, "We're Here to Help," and the Maine Potato Growers market the "Jumbo Spud, the Big Russet, and the Big All Purpose White Potatoes."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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