Exclusive: “A Sustainable Business Strategy is Key to Success”
EarthFresh Farms is a Canadian produce company specializing in supplying the foodservice and retail industries with premium potatoes, as well as carrots and onions. Since the firm recently announced plans to open a potato packing and distribution center in Atlanta, US, Potato Business took the opportunity to sit down with EarthFresh to discuss the company’s recent innovations, plans for the future, but also challenges it faces as a player in the potato industry.
Can you detail some of the innovations your company has put forward in recent years?
EarthFresh is committed to searching the world for the best potatoes that this good Earth has to offer. Each new discovery is then brought back to North America, growing for several years in the climates and soils that best suit their unique varietal properties. This approach allows us to offer unique potato varieties that meet the demand of our “foodie” consumers looking for upscale items.
Our latest addition to our Potatoes of the World family, Red Emmalie, is a red skinned, red fleshed potato. Red Emmalie has been appropriately dubbed “Potato of the Year 2018” in Germany – where this variety originates from. This gourmet variety has an aromatic, slightly floury texture, and a delicate flavor with tangy undertones. Red Emmalie is excellent boiled, roasted, or mashed, as well as in salads or gnocchi.
What are the current market trends concerning fresh potatoes and what do consumers prefer?
According to the Nielsen Perishables Group Total Store Connectivity Analysis, 87% of households purchase fresh potatoes. Nielsen also says that in 2019 and beyond the rising segment of consumers on-the-go and, conversely, those who want to spend more time at home will increase demand for upscale packaged foods that offer “speed scratch” solutions or restaurant quality, convenience foods. Consumers are looking for quick dinner solutions, that are also fresh and healthy, so that they feel good about feeding them to their families.
What’s more, the 2018 Consumer Attitudes and Usage study, by Potatoes USA, shows that 80% of consumers eat potatoes each week. These key market trends fuel our team to bring innovative solutions to the potato category.
What are the challenges of growing organic potatoes compared to standard tubers?
When it comes to growing organic potatoes, compared to conventional potatoes, the biggest issues we face are pest pressure, disease pressure and supplying enough nutrients.
There are several insect pests that attack potatoes, aphids and Colorado Potato Beetle. Aphids can transmit disease and CPB eat the potato leaves.
There are many bacterial, fungal and viral diseases that infect potatoes. Some can decimate the crop or make the crop unmarketable. Some of the most prevalent diseases include rots that can infect the seed pieces, scurf which affects the appearance of the potatoes, and blights which are fungal diseases that led to the Irish Potato Famine.
Potatoes require significant nutrients. The three primary nutrients are nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, as well as many micronutrients such as iron, calcium and boron. Lack of nutrients can result in reduced yield, poor development and quality issues.
Conventional growers have many tools available to combat pest and disease and many choices for nutrients, whereas organic growers have fewer choices. However, an increasing number of options are becoming available to organic producers as acreage increases. OMRI published a list of approved organic products, and many of these have organic or ‘natural’ options and the synthetic equivalent is not allowed. For example, copper is a natural fungicide so maybe copper products that come from a natural source are allowed for organic but copper products that are synthesized are not allowed. Organic growers use many traditional products for pest and disease control, vinegar and Epsom salts have been used. Fertilizer is very similar to this: conventional growers have many options and organic growers are limited to using approved fertilizers and practices to improve soil health.
Crop rotation (the practice of rotating which crops are grown on that field) is used by organic growers to build nutrient levels and decrease disease pressure in soil. A typical rotation for a conventional grower might be corn one year, soybeans the next year and potatoes the final year or even a two-year rotation of rye – potatoes; rye; potatoes. Organic growers are likely on a longer cycle, maybe one year of potatoes in 5 years, and organic growers are more likely to plant crops that add crop residues (nutrients) or combat pest or disease pressure.
How important is the ready-to-eat segment to your business?
Fresh produce is the core of our business. Our product family includes fresh items, rather than processed. We understand that consumers are looking for ready-to-eat meals, so we aim to bring products to the market that are fresh but eliminate certain steps in cooking, such as prep time and using a multitude of dishes. With premium preferences for taste and concern for health and well-being, we know that consumers are demanding more natural, delicious options that do not compete with their busy schedules.
How do you implement sustainability practices into your day-to-today operations?
In 2015 we started a work project with the Provision Coalition, who helped us plan and implement a sustainable business strategy. We identified and addressed the critical issues of our operation and developed strategies to improve our operations, business strategy and culture. In March 2017, EarthFresh was announced as the first company in Ontario, Canada to complete all requirements of The Sustainability Management System Onsite Support Program to Successfully Integrate Sustainability into Its Business. We know that our success is directly linked to implementing and executing a broad range of sustainable practices. Through technological innovation, environmental impact planning, corporate safety initiatives and community relations activities, EarthFresh understands that how we conduct business is of equal importance to our results.
With environmental awareness on the rise, what measures has your company taken to minimize plastic usage in packaging?
EarthFresh is rooted in sustainability and protecting the land we harvest from. Due to growing eco-consciousness, we need to follow consumers’ interest in minimizing their use of unnecessary plastic. We are currently developing more sustainable options that will better align with our core values and those of our consumers.
You recently made public your plans to open a new office, potato packing plant and distribution center in Atlanta. Do you have any other expansion schemes in the pipeline in 2019?
Further to Atlanta, we aim to focus our expansion efforts on product innovation. We are in the final stages of planning new value-added items that will bring uniqueness to the potato category. With consumers having less available time, and higher expectation for food quality and taste, we need to deliver faster options that are also fresh and healthy.
How does EarthFresh choose its suppliers? Which are the criteria?
The success of our business is rooted in the performance of our growers and suppliers. We seek those who align with our core values of being innovative, sustainable and quality focused. Our growers and suppliers understand that great values are necessary to provide our customers with consistently high-quality fresh potatoes.
What are some of your most popular potato varieties in Canada? What about the US?
One of our most popular potatoes varieties in Canada, is Agata – an EarthFresh exclusive variety. Agata is a yellow potato that has a smooth buttery taste profile. It’s a real winner in our potato portfolio. This golden skin potato has a fantastic mild flavor, is great boiled with a little butter, in soups and stews and mashed with a little olive oil. We use Whitney’s for our Polar White label in the Potatoes of the World family. Whitney has a white skin and a smooth creamy texture. With its thin skin, there is no need to peel which eliminates prep time in the kitchen. Other popular varieties include Red Norlands, Mozart and Colomba.
In the U.S. foodservice market, one of our best-selling varieties is the Russet Burbank. Best for crispy on the outside and fluffy on the outside fresh-cut fries, the Russet Burbank is a premium variety chosen by chefs across North America. Its low starch content and large shape ensures top quality fresh-cut fries.