(Oct. 14, 1:43 p.m.) A number of grower-shippers in the Red River Valley have given some thought to producing organic potatoes, but so far, only one major grower has ventured into the category.

Tri-Campbell Farms, Grafton, N.D., launched an organic deal about four years ago, said Tom Campbell, an owner and sales manager.

So far, the program has worked out well.

“It’s a little niche that continues to grow,” Campbell said.

The company’s organic program has been expanding as much as 10% annually, but that growth has slowed a bit with the economic downturn.

“Because of the recession, consumers are buying less,” he said. “We’re seeing more price-conscious shoppers.”

Tri-Campbell Farms launched its organic deal in order to become a full-service shipper, he said.

Many of the foodservice operators and supermarket chains the company dealt with were buying organic potatoes, but they had to source from other suppliers.

Now, Campbell said, “They call us, and we can take care of all their needs.”

The company receives its organic certification from Quality Assurance International and ships a variety of organic consumer packs.

The program, however, accounts for only 1% to 2% of the company’s sales, and Campbell said he’s not sure if it ever will take off in a big way.

Other sheds are keeping an eye on the category but seem reluctant to jump in — at least for the time being.

“Right now, we’re not set up for organic,” said Ron Norman, director of operations for Ryan Potato Co., East Grand Forks, Minn. “We would have to start a different operation.”

Norman has received inquiries about organics, and acknowledges that the category is making inroads.

“It’s a big thing out West, and it’s starting to be a big thing in the East, too,” he said.

But the company would have to have special equipment and separate storage space for organics, creating a logistical challenge, he said.

“I think there’s room for (organics),” he said, but added that in view of the shaky economy, this may not be the right time to start an organic program.

Folson Farm Corp. in East Grand Forks would start an organic deal if the company had enough organic business to make it worthwhile, said Bryan Folson, president.

“It’s a pretty small market,” he said, but if a customer like Wal-Mart that could move significant volume of organics requested it, the company would be interested.

Paul Dolan, general manager at Associated Potato Growers Inc., Grand Forks, N.D., said he’s not sure organic produce can live up to all its hype, but he would not rule out the possibility of starting a program.

“We’re always open for new things,” he said. “It would have to make sense to us.”

He pointed out that organic produce must be kept separate from conventional product, and grower-shippers must comply with a slew of regulations.

Steve Tweten, president of NoKota Packers Inc., Buxton, N.D., said he thinks demand for organics may have peaked.

He is not seeing as much demand for it as he has in the past, but he said that may be due to the slow economy and to the fact that consumers may be convinced that conventional farmers produce a clean, safe product.

If he has a need for organic potatoes, he said he probably is better off buying from another source rather than handling organic product himself.

Campbell can understand why other companies may be slow to embrace organics.

“It’s not for everybody,” he said.

Producing an organic crop can cost twice as much as growing conventionally, he said.

Third-party certification is expensive, too, but the biggest drawback is the reduction in yields.

“You have to get big prices, or you’re going backwards,” he said.

Currently, demand from consumers and some chains seems to be falling off.

Tri-Campbell Farms now ships more 3-pound bags than the 5-pounders that used to be popular.

Besides Whole Foods and other health-oriented stores, a number of main stream chains have gotten involved in organics, Campbell said. But while some have maintained a steady program, others have pulled back.