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     Potatoes New Brunswick

    A delicate global balance in potato trading, and the changes tastes of fry-shy boomers, are hammering the Maritimes potato patch, industry experts say.

    “U.S. people are eating out less these days,” McCain’s Canada spokesperson Calla Farn told the Star to explain the reduced potato orders in the Maritimes.

    Sales of French fries in U.S. restaurants started sliding in 2006 and have gone into a huge nosedive, NPD research group reported. The economic slump is one factor, according to PotatoPro, the potato processing industry’s newsletter, but fries took a bigger hit – a 7 per cent drop – than other restaurant foods.

    In tandem, the dinner market in the U.S. is plummeting because of aging boomers, a study of the “supper market” released last month by NPD said.

    “Boomers are reaching an older age and they’re purchasing fewer fries,” says an industry expert. “Menus have changed. Before, fries came with the meal. Now there are choices.”

    Supplying primarily Russet Burbanks potatoes for McCain’s fries commands half of the $100 million potato industry in New Brunswick, and 90 per cent of that crop goes south of the border.

    “We don’t have the luxury of a long growing season or proximity to markets,” said Joe Brennan, chairman of Potatoes New Brunswick, an industry marketing board, and a potato farmer himself. “That’s why we depended heavily on one cash crop.”

    More choices in fast food restaurants mean fewer fries bought: 75 per cent of the combo meals at lunchtime in the U.S. in 2008, compared with 80 per cent a year earlier, industry figures showed. Even more so for kid’s meals: a drop of 13 per cent in sales of fries, although the drop in overall meal sales was just 6 per cent.

    A big drop in exports to Asia is also hurting, said Brennan.

    Not all markets are soft. Canada, where each person eats 13 kilograms of fries a year, is still a strong market, Farn said. In the U.K., McCain’s sales increased 7.8 per cent in 2007.