With demand for organically-grown produce continuing to increase, Wada Farm Marketing Group LLC in Idaho Falls, ID, made a commitment several years ago to greatly expand its organic offerings across all of its product lines.
That effort is ongoing, as the company continues not only to increase its volume of organic products but also to extend availability, with a goal of being able to offer organic potatoes, onions and sweet potatoes as close to year-round as possible.
Kevin Stanger, Wada Farms president:
“The organic program keeps growing every year at Wada Farms, although not at quite the pace that it was earlier.”
Most of the company’s retail customers now have organic programs to one degree or another. But most of them do not take straight loads of organics. What Wada Farms provides, is a one-stop shop, enabling customers to get organic and conventional products at the same time from the same place, loaded on the same truck.”
“In the potato category, our goal right now is to offer organic potatoes at least 10 or 11 months out of the year, and the number of weeks Wada Farms does not have potatoes is decreasing every year.”
“The major limiting factor is how long the potatoes can be stored after harvest and still deliver a quality product, and as with many other aspects of organic production, that is more of a challenge with organic than with conventionally grown product.”
To extend the shipping season for organic potatoes, Wada’s organic growers have been working to improve their storage facilities and practices, giving the tubers a longer life in storage. That has involved an investment in storage technology, but changes in the way the potatoes are stored and handled.
As an example, for conventionally grown russets, it is standard practice to store the potatoes in piles inside of the storage facility, a method that has proven very successful as long as proper attention is paid to such parameters as temperature and air flow.
But for organic potatoes, Wada Farms growers are now, in many cases, 'storing them in bins so they get better air flow,' Stanger said. That 'costs a lot more,' but it does effectively extend storage life.
Where the organic potatoes are grown also factors into how successful an organic program is, according to Stanger, and Wada Farms’ growers have selected some 'great growing areas' such as Camas, Idaho.
“Most of our organic potatoes are grown away from conventional potatoes.”
“Learning to produce high-quality organic products and to store, pack and ship them successfully over a long shipping season hasn’t happened over one year,”
“It has been years of refining and learning.”
“Some buyers want to see organic potatoes as cheap as conventional. Well, that is not going to be possible and still be able to feasibly grow them. It is not sustainable. It is really not possible.”
“The cost and the yield on organics compared to conventional just don’t match up.”
“In organic onions, currently, we go from August until about May. As you get into the summertime, the organic onions are a little more limited just because onions come out of different areas at different times of the year and some areas don’t grow as much.”
While potatoes are 'the heaviest volume item in organics' for Wada Farms, the company also offers organic onions and organic sweet potatoes.
Wada Farms and its growers have learned to do a good job on red, yellow and russet potatoes. But yields and size profiles continue to be smaller than with conventional, and costs are higher.
Wada’s main sweet potato program is out of North Carolina year-round, and the organic sweet potato program mirrors the conventional season, Stanger said.