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U.S. potato industry discusses challenges, opportunities at meeting in Grand Forks, N.D.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — The U.S. potato industry likes to describe its product as “America’s favorite vegetable.” But the industry faces major challenges in maintaining that popularity — as well as great opportunities to increase foreign sales and consumption of spuds.

“Potatoes are a great product,” said Carl Hoverson, a Larimore, N.D., potato grower and chairman of the U.S. Potato Board. “But we’re not taking anything for granted.”

The Denver-based board, which represents more than 2,500 potato growers and handlers across the country and promotes spud consumption both domestically and internationally, is holding its summer meeting in Grand Forks, N.D., this week. The summer meeting typically is held near the home of the chairman; Larimore is about 30 miles west of Grand Forks.

About 40 industry leaders from all the major potato-producing states are attending. The four-day event ends Thursday with a tour of the area’s potato industry. Many of the key committee meetings were held Wednesday.

The biggest immediate concern is export sales lost because of a lengthy, now-resolved strike at 29 West Coast ports. With U.S. spuds unavailable, some foreign customers switched to potatoes from the European Union and other exporters.

That led to a 6 percent decline in U.S.exports, or a loss of about $35 million, said John Toaspern, chief marketing officer of the U.S. Potato Board.

That’s even more troubling because U.S. potato exports had been growing by 18 percent annually and were expected to continue rising.

The port strike isn’t the only concern. The U.S. dollar has been rising against most foreign currencies, making American potatoes more expensive for overseas buyers. And some competing exporters, such as the European Union, had good crops, increasing the amount of available spuds worldwide.

Long-term U.S. export prospects remain bright, with the opportunities greatest to sell fries in Southeast Asia, Toaspern says.

“We’re working to make U.S. fries fun and exciting,” he says.

Now, the U.S. potato industry is devoting additional resources to win back markets that competitors claimed, at least temporarily, during the port strike. Those efforts include:

  • Buying back European Union potatoes already purchased by buyers in the Philippines, then giving the Filipinos free U.S. spuds and donating the EU potatoes to charity.

  • Training chefs in Vietnam.

  • Stepping up social media promotion in China.

Potato growers in the Red River Valley benefit, both directly and indirectly, from exports, Hoverson said.

The Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota is the nation's leading producer of red potatoes and the only region that produces in volume for the chip, fresh, seed and process markets.

All U.S. French fries can go for export, while seed potatoes grown in the Red River Valley can be exported to growers elsewhere in the world, Hoverson said.

Hoverson, who stressed that he represents all U.S. potato growers as chairman of the national group, said he’s pleased nonetheless that the summer meeting allows industry officials a first-hand opportunity to learn more about the area’s potato industry.

Healthy vegetable?

The U.S. potato industry has some powerful critics at home.

For instance, potatoes don’t count as a vegetable on Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate. The Harvard School of Public Health’s website says “potatoes seem to be a particular culprit for weight gain and diabetes.” It also says, “Potatoes do contain important nutrients — vitamin C, potassium, and vitamin B6, to name a few. But the potato is not the only source of these nutrients, nor is it the best.”

The U.S. potato industry continues to fight back against the critics, using a number of weapons and tactics. One small example: the back on U.S. Potato Board staffers’ business cards lists  potatoes’ nutritional facts — 110 calories per potato, each of which contains significant amounts of potassium, dietary fiber, phosphorus, magnesium, folate, niacin and several types of vitamins, among other things.

“Potatoes are not only delicious, they are good for you and your family. It’s what you top you potato with that determines how healthy it is for you,” according to promotional material from the U.S. Potato Board.

The potato industry hopes to strengthen its case with its “Ninth Wonder of the World” marketing campaign, portions of which were unveiled Wednesday in Grand Forks.

The thinking is, there already are seven wonders of the world, with some other monuments or manmade structures touted as the eighth wonder of the world. Being promoted as the world’s ninth wonder would help to promote potatoes’ tremendous combination of taste, nutrition and affordability, the industry hopes.

‘Potatoes Raise the Bar’

School nutrition programs are a priority for the industry. Roughly 55 million kids attend K-12 schools nationwide, and they eat more than 5 billion school lunches annually. Putting potatoes on each plate just one more time per week would lead to another 3.75 million hundredweight of potatoes being served each year, according to the potato industry.

The “Potatoes Raise the Bar” program, launched July 1, seeks to increase potato offerings on K-12 menus by demonstrating that spuds can boost school meal participation and vegetable consumption.

The  U.S. Potato Board also has issued a “School Salad Bar Challenge” that seeks to deliver 3,000 “potato-friendly” salad bars in elementary, middle and high schools nationwide in the next five years. The board will match every salad bar donated by a potato industry member, up to 300 per year for five years: the goal is 1,500 salad bars donated by potato industry members and  another 1,500 by the board.

More information: www.saladbars2schools.org.

“We’re proud of our product,” Hoverson said.

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