The story behind The Little Potato Company.
DE FOREST - A big grand opening was held last week for a company with a little product – potatoes.
Officials with the Little Potato Company, now at home in the De Forest business park, chose to celebrate the grand opening of their headquarters in the United States last week because it correlated with the 20th anniversary of the company.
“Our new Wisconsin family has swung the doors open to welcome the Little Potato Company,” said company co-founder and CEO Angela Santiago.
The company broke ground at the De Forest site a mere 13 months ago and now has over 100 employees working there.
Santiago and her father Jacob van der Schaaf began the company with the idea of producing the kind of potatoes he remembered from his youth in the Netherlands. They rented one acre of land near their home in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, planting and harvesting their little potatoes by hand.
That first harvest was washed in the family bathtub. The company was originally called Gourmet Produce, and by 1998 the company had grown to a staff of 10 and was re-named The Little Potato Company, recognizing the only product they grow.
They specialize in “creamer” potatoes – a premium, specialty potato varietal that is typically thin-skinned, rich in flavor and highly nutritious.
By 1999 the company’s market expanded to all of western Canada and in 2000 the company moved from rented facilities to its own potato packaging plant in Edmonton.
By 2007 they began growing their potatoes in the United States, meaning they could have a year-round supply of product. In 2011 they opened a partner plant in the eastern Canadian province of Prince Edward Island.
Santiago, the company’s self-described “chief potato champion”, said during the grand opening ceremony that the “end goal is bigger than what we pack and send out the door at the end of the day. We want to help feed the world, better.”
State best choice
Sanford “Sandy” Gleddie, the company’s VP of Agriculture and Business Development, said the project began about two years ago as they began to look at various regions of the country for their expansion. They explored sites in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nebraska before settling on Wisconsin. After that decision was made, things moved fast.
“Wisconsin potato growers signed up with us, planting and harvesting 400 acres before our line was even up and running. That took a tremendous leap of faith on their part,” he said.
The company’s specialty potatoes are also grown in Washington, California and Missouri.
Gleddie explained that the tiny creamer potatoes packed and sold by the Little Potato Company are not the same as “new potatoes” one might dig out of the garden or find at the farmer’s market. Those are juvenile potatoes, he said, with flaky, fragile skin. That kind of spud would not be scalable and would have no shelf life.
The company works with plant breeders in Chile, the Netherlands and Canada to improve on and create new varieties of the creamer potato. “We are looking for high set, meaning lots of potatoes under each plant, a skin that’s not flaky and the best flavor we can get,” Gleddie added.
The Little Potato Company also wants to cultivate potatoes that are full of flavor and nutrition and seeks to “bring the potato back to its original glory,” restoring qualities that may have been lost along the way. All of their variety production comes through traditional plant breeding methods.
The company grows seven of its own varieties, with various colored skins, including blue, and has a large pipeline of different varieties on the way. Achieving better yields for growers is one of the goals of the breeding program. There are eight Wisconsin farms growing for the company, with five in the Central Sands region producing spuds for sale and three other growers in the Antigo area who are producing seed potatoes.
“That’s what brought us here,” he said. “Wisconsin has the potato growers, the soil, the climate – it’s in our name. If we don’t have potatoes, we don’t have a company.”
Company officials were also drawn to Wisconsin’s “welcoming business climate,” Gleddie said. “Wisconsin people wanted us to be here.”
De Forest, in northern Dane County, was chosen because it is close to a large labor pool and close to the growers in the state. He adds that De Forest village officials provided a “shovel-ready” site and “bent over backwards to get us up and running on time.”
Getting the plant operational quickly was a big consideration, he said, because they contracted with Wisconsin growers in May 2016 to produce creamers. That harvest then had to be stored on the farms until the facility was ready, which happened in January. Any glitch in that timeline would have caused problems, he said.
“We didn’t want production to sort of dribble into the plant. We knew that when we started we wanted to be fully staffed and have lots of product to run through here,” he said. Though the company had its official grand opening last week, it has been processing potatoes since January.
The creamers which are washed, sorted and packaged in De Forest, he adds, are meant to be small – from ¾ inch to 1 5/8 inch. On the grading scale they are just before potatoes which grade as “small.”
During a tour of the plant, visitors saw how potatoes come into the plant, get washed, sorted and packaged for retail sale. Some of the packages are microwave-ready; some are in aluminum pans, ready for the grill. Last week, workers were packing three kinds of little potatoes together in one bag.
While waiting to be processed, potatoes are kept at 40 degrees and 95 percent humidity in three huge coolers – each capable of holding 1.5 million pounds of potatoes.
Several different washing process lines remove stones, dirt and plant material and brushes polish the little spuds. Ozone is used to keep bacteria at bay so the shelf life of the product can be extended.
Long conveyor lines of tiny potatoes are scanned by an optical sorter which can kick out odd or defective potatoes. There are also several lines of human scanners that make sure no bad potatoes get through to the packaging section.
Any potatoes that don’t make the grade are sent to the cull section to be shipped off for dehydration so they can go into pet food.
There are two packing lines in the plant now and a third is coming in the fall. The workers pack little potatoes for sale at large retailers, including Walmart, Costco, Sam’s Club, HyVee and Aldi. Most of the potatoes coming in the plant now are processed and shipped out in less than 48 hours, crew members said.