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

Menu Development
ranch dressing chicken fingers

While salad bars are often the first place K-12 operators look to incorporate more fresh produce, few go as far as making their own salad dressings. But last fall, in a continuing effort to transition from prepackaged meals to an all-scratch menu, Mark Augustine, executive chef of culinary and nutrition services for Minneapolis Public Schools, switched to concocting four varieties in-house—ranch, Caesar, Italian and Asian vinaigrette. The move, designed to eliminate artificial ingredients and lower fat and sodium, presented the biggest challenge when it came to ranch dressing, the school-...

Ideas and Innovation
business card

We get the new folks abridged business cards saying, “Hi, my name is so-and-so and I work in nutrition department.” We thought it would give them more ownership of the program and elevate their status and position in the organization. It also gives our team more self-confidence and self-worth as an employee, which can be a challenge with foodservice workers.

Ideas and Innovation
tug hospital robot

Automation has opened up in recent years as foodservice operators across the country grapple with labor shortages. Robots deliver food trays to patients in hospitals, and they make sushi on college campuses. For some operators, they’re worthwhile to reduce strain on human employees and increase productivity.

Robots roamed the hallways when the University of California San Francisco Medical Center’s new Mission Bay campus opened last year. Though these robots have nicknames like Wall-E and Tuggie McFresh, they’re not a novelty. They’re a solution to a problem that administrators...

Ideas and Innovation
sandwich sub

At our corporate operation in the Kohl’s headquarters, two kinds of sandwiches are available daily—an artisan version and a more straightforward sub. While planning out a business model for the space, Kohl’s wanted something that was quality driven, but very sensitive to pricing for associates. Diners are comfortable spending about $6 to $7 for lunch.

FSD Resources