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Published September 28, 2010, 10:03 AM

Red River Valley spud farmers hope for production gains

U.S. potato exports, which had been rising for years, slipped last year because of the global recession.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

U.S. potato exports, which had been rising for years, slipped last year because of the global recession.

But prospects for the new marketing year are brightening as the world economy slowly improves, potato industry officials say.

Foreign customers “recognize the quality and value” of U.S. potatoes and will buy more of them when the economy is better, says David Fairbourn, a spokesman for the Denver-based U.S. Potato Board.

Projected declines in European and Canadian potato production also should help U.S. spud exports in coming months, the Potato Board says.

The United States exported $1.17 billion of potatoes in the 12 months ending June 2010. That was down 2.7 percent from record sales in the previous marketing year, according to the Potato Board.

Exports in the 2009 to ’10 marketing year to Japan, the leading importer of U.S. spuds, fell 3 percent, reflecting the weak economy there, the Potato Board says.

Worldwide, a decline in the export of frozen potato products — which account for the majority of U.S. potato exports — was partially offset by a rise in the export of fresh potatoes.

“People aren’t eating out as much” because of the economy, cutting into demand for frozen potato products, although they also are more likely to eat fresh potatoes at home, Fairbourn says.

U.S. potato exports rose steadily during most of the past decade, in large part because of greater demand in Asia and Latin America.

About 15 percent of U.S. potato production now goes for exports.

Red River Valley’s role

It’s unclear what percentage of spuds grown in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota are exported, says Ted Kreis, marketing and communications director of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association in East Grand Forks, Minn.

But potatoes are a major crop in the region; last year, Minnesota ranked fifth nationally in spud production, with North Dakota seventh.

The Red River Valley is the nation’s only large-volume producer of potatoes for the chip, fresh, seed and process markets, according to the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association.

Last year, heavy fall rains cut into production in the Red River Valley, particularly North Dakota.

This year’s harvest is going better, and North Dakota is expected to jump back to fourth place in national spud production, Kreis says.

As of Sept. 20, 44 percent of North Dakota potatoes were harvested, compared with 14 percent a year earlier, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Fifty percent of Minnesota spuds were harvested, up from 35 percent a year earlier, NASS says.