Update From the Field
Some of America's most active commodity boards respond to key agricultural issues and share their latest news.
Avocados grown on U.S. soil come primarily from California, with the richly flavored Hass variety dominating production. The California Avocado Commission projects that 980 million pounds of avocados will be shipped in 2006, but to assure year-round availability, the CAC teamed up with Mexico and Chile to form the Hass Avocado Board. A benefit of this global marketing partnership is that growers can wait until the fruit reaches full flavor before it's picked.
Buying tip: California avocados are at their peak from February-September, when those from Mexico start coming in.
Blueberries have soared in usage. Per capita consumption blossomed from 5 ounces in the 1970s to 20 ounces in 2005, a figure that is limited by supply, says the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council. In the past two years, 10,000 new acres have been planted to meet demand and more wild blueberries are going to foodservice. The blueberry's status as an antioxidant powerhouse has boosted usage.
Buying tip: A berry's size does not indicate ripeness or sweetness; its color does. Red berries will not ripen off the bush.
Watermelons are gearing up to get a bigger slice of the foodservice market. The National Watermelon Promotion Board is now reaching out to operators with easy-to-handle smaller size melons and watermelon concentrate and juice.
Buying tip: Watermelons and their byproducts are available year round, they're not just a summer dessert item. Purchase the concentrate to use in cocktails, sorbets and slushies.
Potato farmers are moving away from a focus on yield and disease resistance and towards the specialty spud market. The Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association is funding research to identify flavor characteristics in potato breeds and is partnering with chefs to choose varieties that are both grower- and consumer-friendly.
Buying tip: Purple, yellow and fingerling potatoes are moving faster than russet, white and red varieties in foodservice.
Egg production is being impacted by animal rights groups. In response, the United Egg Producers launched its UEP Certified program that sets humane standards for caged egg production. Farmers who participate must raise hens in cages with adequate space, nutritious food, clean water, proper lighting and daily fresh air.
Buying tip: Purchase eggs with the UEP Certified seal on the packaging. Producers participating in this USDA-supported program must comply 100% with the requirements and agree to third-party audits.
Cheese production is trending toward the specialty varieties; there was a 7% increase in farmstead, artisanal, washed rind and ethnic cheeses in 2005, according to the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service. The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board is now working directly with specialty distributors nationwide to make smaller production and artisan cheeses available to restaurant operators.
Buying tip: The WMMB pairs cheese experts with chefs to develop cheese programs in restaurants.
Honey is being developed in new, user-friendly forms under the National Honey Board's Applied Sciences program. Recently introduced is a pumpable honey syrup; prototypes in development include solid honey, honey balsamic vinegar and a whipped honey topping.
Buying tip: With mites and other pests decimating bee populations, honey production is declining in the U.S. and prices may rise. However, research from the Honey Board found that consumers are willing to pay more for menu items that contain honey.
Seafood consumption in restaurants has steadily increased over the last five years. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute says that 77% of consumers prefer wild, ocean-caught seafood, but aquaculture is also becoming an important and cost-effective supplier for foodservice. In the U.S., salmon, trout, catfish, tilapia, barramundi, mussels, oysters and shrimp are farmed under strict standards.
Buying tip: To keep current on purchasing the most abundant, sustainable and well-managed wild and farmed seafood, consult the Seafood Watch guides on www.mbayaq.org.
Soy foods are experiencing growth as Americans look for leaner protein alternatives. The American Heart Association issued 2006 recommendations that emphasize eating foods high in fiber and using vegetable-based substitutes (like soy proteins) and leaner animal products to cut back on saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol.
Buying tip: Foodservice purchasing has focused on soy-based burgers and tofu, but more soy milk, yogurt and cheese and fresh-from-the-pod edamame are coming into kitchens.
Rice purchased by restaurants is predominantly the regular long-grain or parboiled white varieties for most applications, says the USA Rice Federation, but short and medium-grain rices are gaining space on the shelf. Brown rice is also experiencing growth, tying into the new U.S. dietary guidelines' call to increase whole grain consumption.
Buying tip: American rice growers are cultivating basmati, jasmine, black Japonica and aromatic red rice, formerly grown abroad and imported. Look for these varieties to create authentic Indian, Japanese, Thai and Middle Eastern dishes.