The global potato market is growing. Consumer demand is on the up, with the potato recognized once more as the nutritious, tasty, low-cost diet staple it is. Many factors have created this effect: value-added products, carb-friendly diets and new varieties of potato to name a few, plus promotions, such as Potatoes: More than a bit on the side.
In particular demand are smaller potatoes, and not just with consumers. While certain small varieties are indeed being snapped up for premium fresh products, processors too need good quality potatoes and for them, size matters less. This means smaller potatoes can be separated with a size grader, washed and sorted, taking them from the waste pile and turning them into a highly profitable second product stream.
So, what can fresh packers do to make the most of these opportunities?
Why the demand for small salad-sized potatoes is growing
In the UK, they are known traditionally as new potatoes; the first to market every year thanks to the weather on the sunny isle of Jersey where the famous Jersey Royals are grown. In the US, they are known as fingerlings, varietals. Whatever you call them, the appeal of small potatoes is growing.
Certain companies, such as the aptly named Little Potato Company, specialize in small varieties. This business adds value with recipes and herb packets, for example. But that’s only part of it. Even ahead of the nutritional value of their potatoes, they feature the lack of prep and short cooking time. These potatoes come pre-washed and consistently sized which, together with their delicate skins that don’t need peeling, turn this nutritious staple into a convenience food, ready to eat in as little as five minutes.
This convenience aspect is very important to the consumer, as recent research into the US potato market revealed. 67% of those surveyed said they serve or eat mashed potatoes at least once a month. However, the same survey found that 41% of consumers would be more likely to serve them if they did not have to prepare them from scratch.
This lean towards convenience might seem to work against fresh packers, but in fact, the opposite is true. If your sorting lines are capable of sizing and grading your product with optimum accuracy, you can become a supplier to brands for whom convenience is important, based on size alone.
Why potato consumer brands are favoring small varieties of potato
For the consumer, size is important when it comes to convenience. Smaller potatoes mean smaller packs, no peeling and fast cooking time with consistent results; these latter two aspects also appealing to chefs. This might seem too simple an explanation for their growing demand, but a recent market report from the UK’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) backs it up.
When asked their opinion on off-putting aspects of buying potatoes, 18% of respondents said they were too heavy to carry home and 15% said they took too long to prepare. Therefore, consistently sized, quick-to-cook small potatoes, presented in smaller bags with no need to peel make commercial sense. Smaller packs also reduce waste. Usually, the entire bag is eaten at once with no items left to spoil in the cupboard, and there is less packaging to recycle.
With diet plans such as Slimming World offering up potatoes as a food their dieters can eat freely and still lose weight, the appeal is set to grow further. As this market matures, we are seeing the consumer willing to pay more for premium products – either based on convenience or plate appeal - making them very attractive to brands.
Meanwhile, potato processors are looking for small potatoes as well. For these businesses, it is about waste reduction and maximizing yield that has suffered from unpredictable weather. If a Maris Piper comes up too small for consumer expectations, there is processor waiting to turn it into flakes, granules or starch. Lower grade potatoes can also be sold as animal feed, opening the case for a third grade of sorting.
Good news for potato fresh packers and processors
Small potatoes have traditionally been very labor-intensive to sort. A salad potato line can potentially pass 200,000 potatoes per hour for inspection. With a typical reject load of 10%, this means 20,000 potatoes will need to be removed, requiring at least six people.
The diminishing availability and increasing costs of human labor, therefore, have been deterred packers from investing in such product lines. With bulk electronic sorting these problems are solved. Labor requirements are dramatically reduced and the technology can fit into existing packing lines with minimal changes.
If it is only a matter of correctly sizing the most popular varieties, smaller potatoes can easily be separated with an upgraded sorter / grader. This adjustment alone can potentially save small potatoes from the waste pile and turn them into a highly profitable second or third product stream.
For fresh packers wanting to maximise profits by offering premium small varieties to high-end retailers, processes must be up to the challenge. Premium crops demand premium sorting techniques – but the rewards can be very generous.
The Little Potato Company make no secret of the role sophisticated tech plays in their success. A recent article about their impressive growth, states: “A remarkable piece of high-tech equipment looks at each of the hundreds of millions of potatoes that go through the line, instantly ejecting, faster than the eye can see, anything that the computer has been programmed to reject.”
Preparing the packing facility for premium potatoes and secondary product lines
Optimizing your business to capitalize on these new opportunities starts with preparation. Here are some key considerations to get you started:
- Check your capacity and understand where your bottlenecks lie
It’s easy to overspend on technology before you need it. Understanding the areas you need to prioritize for improvement and your optimum investment levels in terms of your capacity will help you make the best decisions for your business.
- Replace manual processes wherever possible
It is a simple fact that machines are better inspectors than humans. If you are looking at entering the premium market, you must make sure you have the technology to meet the necessary high standards. Serious competitors in this space only use automated inspection processes
- Choose technology that is easy to use
Make sure any new technology you invest in is easy to use and you can pick it up and run with it immediately. Long-term promises of great results soon turn into expensive frustrations if technology proves too complex for practical use.