Processors dictate ever-smaller potato sizes to producers

Mark VanOostrum: “Right now the larger potatoes won’t fit this bag.”

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Small potatoes are a big deal for chip processors.

Influenced by the current portion sizing of many food products, potato chip processors are selling an increasing amount of product in smaller sized packaging, including the popular single serving sizes.

And those packages will soon be even smaller, resulting in a request for smaller potatoes to produce a smaller-sized chip, said Mark VanOostrum, Potato Supply and Quality Manager with WD Potato Ltd. near Beeton.

“Right now the larger potatoes won’t fit this bag,” said VanOostrum in addressing the recent Ontario Potato Conference and Trade Show in Guelph.

The demand for the “flat chips” which also require a smaller size chip will grow by 50 per cent over the next five years, said VanOostrum.

The older processing equipment in the plants cannot utilize larger sized potatoes to produce the desired sized chip. This equipment is expensive to replace so processors are demanding potato producers grow a smaller potato as an alternative solution to replacing equipment.

A huge portion of the Ontario potato market is dictated by large urban centers such as Toronto and New York. The smaller packaging of chips is being designed to appeal to those markets.

Even the family size bags of chips are being made smaller reflecting the fewer people in the average household.

Growing smaller potatoes is not necessarily bad news for producers since yields, based on pounds of potatoes produced per acre, can actually be increased.

VanOostrum outlined changes in crop management that could result in smaller potatoes including reduced spacing between plants. This would require more cost for seed but that cost could be offset by less acres required to fill a supply contract because of higher yield.

This also produces a potato more elongated in shape.

Applying a hormone regulator to seed potatoes results in more stems being produced which will result in the production of more potatoes of a smaller size.

He recommended using whole seed potatoes which proved more reliable in producing a greater number of stems.

Producers also have the option of an early killing of potato vines to halt growth before potatoes reached the larger, undesirable sizes.

Reduction of nitrogen fertilizer application will also reduce potato size.

Potato sizes are commonly measured in the number of potatoes needed to equal one pound. For instance two potatoes together weighing one pound would be classified as large while four potatoes equalling one pound would be classified as small.

VanOostrum suggested 3.6 potatoes to the pound would be perfect to fill the new demands being made by potato chip processors.

Mechanical sizing of potatoes will allow producers to achieve the product desired by processors but is labour intensive and can only be done on a limited scale, said VanOostrum.

Finding a market for large potatoes might be a problem going forward as there is only one year in five that processors will accept those, said VanOostrum.

WD Potato Ltd. is part of a network of growers from Florida through the eastern seaboard, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

VanOostrum monitors potato quality related to fry tests and sugar tests on potatoes as well as conducting on-farm trials to evaluate new varieties and emerging disease problems.

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