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Updated: January 10, 2020

Green Thumb Farms launches program to expand Maine's potato universe

Courtesy / Green Thumb Farms Green Thumb Farms of Fryeburg is collaborating with Hannaford on bringing experimental potato varieties to consumers. Green Thumb Director of Sales and Marketing Mike Hart, pictured, said the new Farmers First program allows both retailers and the farm to find out what consumers want.

Potato-eaters this month are getting a chance to try a new variety that hasn't been seen in New England before, the result of a partnership between Fryeburg's Green Thumb Farms and Hannaford Supermarkets. If it works, you may eventually find new kinds of potatoes in a wider range of Maine stores.

Mike Hart, director of sales and marketing for Green Thumb Farms said the Farmers First program, launched in December, aims to solve a farm-to-store-to-consumer issue — how to introduce new varieties of potato to consumers efficiently. With the program, participating stores can track sales of a new variety offered on a limited basis, then work with the farm to produce the variety if they want to sell it long-term.

The approach also gives Green Thumb Farms a chance to find out what consumers want in a potato. Hart said that the yearly program will involve different retailers, as well as different varieties of potato.

a mesh bag with yellow potatoes in in and a tag that says Farmers First
Courtesy / Green Thumb Farms
The Queen Anne potato, being sold on a limited basis by Green Thumb Farms at Hannaford supermarkets, comes in 2-pound bags, so consumers can try it out without making a big commitment.

The first round of the program will last until supplies are gone, likely by the end of this month, he said. The farm has supplied Hannaford with 105,000 2-pound bags of Queen Anne potatoes.

It's not the first time new potato varieties have been in stores, but it's a new way to focus on marketing and consumer feedback, he said.

"In the past we've [offered new varieties] and they get lost on the shelf," he said. Frequently, too, new varieties from potato farms get tossed into 5- or 10-pound bags with other potatoes. "There's only so much you can do," given the potato growing season, storage space and the space in stores to display products, he said.

Farmers First is a chance to offer a "litmus test" for stores to determine if they want to carry a new variety. "We're invested in finding out what consumers like," he said.

With 2-pound bags, smaller than what's usually offered, someone can buy the new variety without making a huge commitment to it.

The plan is to expand and partner with retailers every potato harvesting season in the fall, providing the sample variety for a limited time and allowing stores to determine if it's catching on with customers. If stores want to carry a Farmers First variety, the retailers would then work with Green Thumb on producing it. He said there's already been interest from retailers besides Hannaford.

Working partnership

The Farmers First collaboration is part of an ongoing working relationship Hannaford has with Green Thumb, said Ericka Dodge, Hannaford manager of external communications.

"Over the past few years, we have worked closely with them in a very dynamic and collaborative manner — starting with brainstorming potato varieties and innovations that can provide our customers with what they’re looking for," she said. "Whether that’s a different flavor or convenient packaging. As a result, we are thrilled to have been one of the first grocers to carry such items such as the Cold River Gold and now the Queen Anne potatoes."

The Cold River Gold potatoes were made available for retail in late 2018 after a lot of success with area restaurants, including Portland's Duckfat, which uses them for their french fries.

The most recent collaboration is part of the ongoing relationship the store chain and farm have, Dodge said. "We look forward to offering the Queen Anne potatoes to our customers and will be curious to see how they respond. Our work together doesn’t stop here, however. We’ll continue to work closely with Green Thumb on what will be the next potato to come from Maine."

Hannaford works with more than 2,000 local producers, offering more than 6,000 local products in its 181 stores in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York. The Scarborough-based company, owned by Ahold Delhaize, has 63 stores in Maine.

"Any time we can work with a local farmer and provide high quality food while reducing food miles, we try to take advantage of that," Dodge said. "Add to that, Green Thumb Farms’ attention and commitment to sustainability aligns well with Hannaford’s commitments and values."

A potato that stands out

Hart discovered the Queen Anne potatoes at the Potato Expo, held in Las Vegas last January. One reason he goes to the annual event, which is next week, is to check out different varieties of potato. Green Thumb Farms grows potatoes, as well as beans and corn on 2,500 acres. While the amount of potatoes produced a year varies, Hart said the farm has storage for 25 million pounds, and also sells out of its fields.

The Queen Anne has a smooth, thin bright yellow skin that's resistant to bruising, and is oblong rather than round. "I looked at it and said, 'This will work well, it's a little different,'" he said. "It will stand out."

He said he likes it as a baked potato, rolled in a little olive oil and salt before baking, but it's also good when mashed. The potato doesn't have the starch and sugar quality to fry well, but is good for dishes like hash browns.

Hart said the potatoes also like the sandy Saco River valley soil at Green Thumb Farms. After he discovered the variety, "We went in head-first I liked it so much."

He said that new varieties will be available after October's harvest, and the program will likely expand to other stores with other types of potato.

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