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Maine's Newest Potato Has Had a Slow Start

The Caribou Russet potato (center) has proven hard to find.
The Caribou Russet potato (center) has proven hard to find.

Maine's Newest Potato Has Had a Slow Start

It’s been more than a year since a new potato variety known as the Caribou Russet was unveiled. But so far, it’s been rather hard to find — getting a new potato onto store shelves isn’t as simple as it may seem.

Maine has launched many potato varieties. The Easton, the Sebec, and old classics like the Katahdin and the Kennebec, among others. But none in recent years has gotten quite so much fanfare as the Caribou Russet.

“This one has some flavor, which is unique and separates it a little bit from the traditional russets you buy in the store,” says Don Flannery, who heads the Maine Potato Board.

Flannery calls it a true dual-purpose potato. It’s equally good baked, fried and mashed, and it tastes, he says, like the potatoes your grandmother would remember.

But the Caribou Russet has yet to be found in major grocery stores. Flannery says that’s because launching a new produce item, with a brand attached, means a lot of uncertainty for both retailers and growers.

“There’s a certain amount of risk because, you know, if you raise it assuming or believing you’re going to have a market for it and you don’t, then you’ve got a tremendous investment there,” he says.

It’s been a bit of a circular puzzle. Flannery says in order for growers to plant enough acres of Caribou Russet to supply a market, they need to know that stores will carry it. But for stores to carry the potato, they need to know that they can sell it, and they need to know there’s a good supply.

Typically, major stores view spuds as bulk produce, and buy a supply to be repackaged under a store brand. Some 600 types of potatoes are available in the U.S., but you may not be aware of the fact. The bag you put in your cart simply says “russets,” “white potatoes” or “red potatoes,” leaving you none the wiser.

But market experts like Nory Jones, who teaches at the University of Maine School of Business, see the case of the Caribou Russet as a study in Maine’s shifting economies.

“Historically, if you look at potatoes, and the wood products industry, and so on, it’s been such a commodities market throughout Maine and throughout so many of the staple products here,” she says.

Much of Maine’s maple syrup, for example, is shipped to Canada in bulk, where it’s packaged and sold without any Maine branding. But, Jones says, trends seem to be changing, partly fueled by millennial shoppers seeking more of a farmers market experience.

“Maine as a whole is trying to change the way producers develop and market their products, and try to create value-added in the products and change them from being commodities to being branded, value-added products,” Jones says.

Harold Daniel, also a marketing specialist at the School of Business, says there’s also risk involved when a store trumpets that a product is special, and maybe worth a higher price tag.

“And that requires a demonstrably superior consumption experience,” he says. “Failing that, you can advertise all you want and you may generate a lot of trial, but you may not get the repeat purchase because if there’s not a demonstrably superior product, then the cheaper product is going to win.”

A spokesman for Hannaford Supermarket says the company is always interested in locally produced products, but when or how they intend to sell the Caribou Russet hasn’t been decided.

“If we have any luck at all, which I think we will, I think next season will be the year you’ll be able to see it in your major chains and your major supermarkets,” Flannery says.

But there’s some good news for the Caribou Russet. Flannery says a number of Tradewinds Markets from Milo to Blue Hill have agreed to offer it starting Dec. 17, with a couple of independent grocery stores getting shipments just in time for Christmas dinner.

Copyright 2016 Maine Public