Packaging Potatoes

In an effort to meet changing consumer demands and lifestyles, L&M Cos. is expanding its microwaveable potatoes to include sweet potatoes, and has introduced new packaging for their microwaveable russet potatoes.

The company saw consumer trends and interests moving in a new direction, toward a more “down-home” lifestyle, and the packaging of the Russet potatoes is a reflection of that simpler time, sporting graphics featuring children playing in farm fields, and innovative cooking ideas consumers can use to have more home-cooked meals. It is all part of a marketing plan featuring products that reach out to consumers who want that quieter lifestyle.

“It connects with the values the consumers are used to, really a back-to-basics living, and our packaging reflects that,” said Glen Reynolds, L&M business management director for potatoes and onions. “We think the design and packaging really hit the mark in graphic design and attributes.”

Like their Russet counterparts, the sweet potatoes are individually wrapped in plastic and double washed prior to packaging. Minimal preparations are needed for consumption, and they can be used both as a lunch item or side item for dinner.

“They’re a perfect size for a quick lunch, and they’re also tailored for a quick grab-and-go type dinner or as a side dish,” Reynolds said.

Fresh produce is a staple for the Raleigh, N.C.-based grower and packer, but the company has been eyeing the value-added market for years, monitoring consumer trends and habits prior to releasing the microwaveable Russet potatoes more than five years ago. The company also studied consumer trends prior to releasing the new packaging for the Russet potatoes. The microwaveable sweet potatoes were unveiled at the Southeast Produce Council Expo in Tampa, Fla., with a positive response from retailers.

“As a company, we are always looking for new, unique packaging, and new ways to attract consumers, and we have been looking at these products for about a year,” Reynolds, said. “We’ve had very good response from the retail segment.”

The potatoes are available to retailers in 40-lb. boxes, typically in 70 to 80 count sizes.

Russet potatoes and sweet potatoes are key commodities for the company. Russet potatoes are one of the farm’s original crops, dating back to the mid-1960s. The commodity has increased to an average of 9,000 acres each year on L&M farms across the United States. Sweet potatoes have been a relatively new addition to their list of products only in the past 10 years.

Demand for sweet potatoes has been growing, however, and the demand for both sweet and Russet potatoes has led to dramatic increases in acreage for both crops. That demand has led to an expansion far outside North Carolina’s borders, with farms in Florida, Georgia, Texas, Colorado, Maine, Washington and Idaho, even as far west as California. The farm also has international operations in Mexico, as well as Central and South America.

With so many diverse growing locations, L&M Co. holds a unique position to offer every potato variety available on the market, varieties that are grown in every potato-growing region in the United States. That offers L&M the opportunity to market potatoes year-round.

“Russet potatoes and sweet potatoes are a very large part of our product line, and we ship a full variety of produce,” Reynolds said. “We are one of a few farms who grow every season of potatoes, and we grow them as they rotate around the growing season.”

The acreage increase has been fueled by an increase in demand for potatoes, especially sweet potatoes, as consumers are increasingly turning to them for their health benefits. Home consumption has seen dramatic increases in recent years, with the average consumer using potatoes at least once during a two-week period, and more than a third of home-cooked meals containing potatoes, Reynolds said. That demand increase was echoed by Tracy Fowler, L&M’s general manager for potatoes and onions.

“Demand by customers for sweet potatoes has increased the last two years. It seems to be a hot commodity, and it seems to be in demand for export, as well,” Fowler said.

L&M Co. markets the Russet potatoes and sweet potatoes to retail and foodservice outlets, and has facilities across the United States to meet that demand. Processing centers include North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Texas, Colorado, Idaho, California and Washington. Most of the products offered are through the farms, though the company does contract with third-party growers to meet demand, on an as-needed basis.

The L&M facilities are also able to process and market produce for growers who may not have that capacity.

“We contract with other growers to help fill our supply needs. In some cases, we have packing houses and infrastructure in place, and we’ll assist other growers in getting their product to market,” Reynolds said.

The microwaveable potatoes are only the latest in a line of products and innovations the company is exploring to address changing consumer demands and trends, and it’s a direction the company believes is the future of the produce market.

“We saw an opportunity to offer microwaveable baked potatoes, and it just seemed like a natural fit to get the products to market quickly in a growing consumer segment,” Reynolds said.

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