Growers' Insights: A Swanky Sort of Spud

The cost to grow—and purchase—fingerling potatoes is more than other types of potatoes.

Published in FSD Update

Strohauer Farms’ fingerling potato mixture.

Many elementary students grow potatoes, sprouted in cartons on sunny windowsills, as a classroom assignment. But heirloom potato varieties—especially upmarket fingerlings—are a more complicated crop than those humble student potato projects.

“Organic fingerling potatoes are fussy and need a lot of attention,” says Dan Chin, owner of Chin Farms, in Klamath Falls, Ore. Chin’s specialized equipment can dig up potatoes as small as peanuts, although most are a few inches long. Planting is challenging, too, Chin says about the process of coaxing small fingerling seeds into planters with the correct spacing and cultivating them sans pesticides. In addition to mechanical weeding, fingerlings require meticulous hand weeding.

After growing during the summer, harvest of the mid-to-late season tubers runs through September and October. State-of-the-art storage facilities where air flow, temperature and humidity are controlled, preserve potatoes’ freshly dug flavor through May.

Tanya Fell, sales director at Strohauer Farms, in LaSalle, Colo., says farming fingerlings is costly. Fingerling seed is three times the cost of conventional potatoes.

Different types have varying demands, but fingerlings basically fall into two categories. Determinate varieties have vines that are fairly orderly. The indeterminate varieties may produce excessive vines and have to be controlled—meaning a careful balance of fertilizer so that the vines don’t grow so large that it’s hard to get to the small fingerlings growing underneath.

Jerry Tominaga, vice president of Southwind Farms, in Heyburn, Idaho, says, “Fingerlings have ‘wow’ factor on the plate, with their different colors, shapes and sizes. Small potatoes mean fast cooking. There’s no waste with fingerlings, because you don’t peel off the thin skins.” 

Not to mention the taste, which Tominaga describes as moist, with a nutty, buttery flavor. “These are moister than usual potatoes, because they don’t have all that starch that makes them dry, like baking potatoes.”

Chef and Oregon Potato Commission member Leif Eric Benson is working with farmers on a project that maps which heirloom potatoes grow best where, similar to how wine-producing regions are identified by the type of grape. The potatoes are submitted by growers, coded with a number and presented to a panel for a blind taste test.

“Growers, chefs and consumers never have the opportunity to compare the taste of different potatoes,” Benson says. “When compared side-by-side, you can really distinguish the flavors, textures and expression of the terroir—the characteristics of the soil and growing conditions.” A flavor matrix empowers the tasters with a lexicon of words to describe what they are tasting, such as earthy, nutty, buttery and sweet.

Colorful spuds

Heirloom fingerling potatoes come in yellow, red and purple varieties, and most growers produce several types of each hue. “A few years ago, people didn’t know what to think about a small potato that is purple both inside and out,” Fell says.

“Television cooking shows have really helped.” Weary of the bad press against carbs, growers stress that colored potatoes are fat free and high in fiber and antioxidants. “Fingerlings work well in many preparation methods, from cold and warm salads to roasting, baking, boiling and steaming,” Benson adds.

Tominaga, whose best-sellers are the golden varieties of Russian Banana and La Ratte, says supply and demand drives the price of fingerlings. “We sell according to size, [but] we don’t want them very big,” Tominaga says. “The yellows are a familiar color, and so they’re the top sellers. Then the reds—ours are Red Thumb and French Fingerling—followed by the Purple Fiesta and the Purple Peruvian, which yield less and are therefore more expensive to grow based on cost per acre. As a result, the purples cost consumers a little more and we don’t sell as many, but [we] make up the loss on the yellows.”

The United States Potato Board reports that consumers pay about 85 cents a pound for specialty potatoes, versus 45 to 60 cents a pound for a typical five-pound bag of baking potatoes. The board says that buying direct from the grower is usually a better value.  

More From FoodService Director

Managing Your Business
teamwork pack

As summer begins to fade and vacation season comes to a close, it’s time to start thinking about revitalizing staffers’ connections to one another . It’s certainly no secret in the Winsight offices that I’m a bit of a social butterfly, which, in turn, means I’m a rockstar at team building. Can you spot the inter-office activity I haven’t organized from the list below?

• Breakfast Sandwich Fridays: Co-workers rotate responsibility of providing ingredients for customizable sandwiches. Mimosas may have been involved. • “Sound of Music” Soundtrack Singalong Thursdays. The majority of...

Ideas and Innovation
walk-in cooler

The walk-in cooler can serve as a gathering place for more than just produce. When temperatures rise, staff at Empire State South restaurant in Atlanta host meetings in the walk-in and make occasional trips to hang out throughout the day to beat the back-of-house heat.

Managing Your Business
student shame
Let students charge meals

“We allow students to charge meals at all levels; even in high school, they can charge a certain number of meals. [After that is met,] they are given an alternate meal,” says Sharon Glosson, executive director of school nutrition services for North East Independent School District. Elementary students can charge up to $15 of meals; middle schoolers can charge $10; and high schoolers can charge $5. “Ultimately, [food services is] carrying out the policy; but we’re not necessarily the creators of the policy, [nor do we] have the final say ... because that budget...

Menu Development
college students eating

Taste may reign supreme when college students choose their next snack, but operators should also pay attention to factors such as price and portion size. Here are the most important attributes students consider when choosing snacks, according to Technomic’s 2017 College and University Consumer Trend Report .

Taste: 78%

Ability to satisfy my appetite between meals: 67%

Price: 64%

Portion size: 54%

Familiarity: 46%

Overall nutrition value: 40%

Protein content: 36%

All-natural ingredients: 29%

Fiber content: 27%

...

FSD Resources