Advertise in Print | Subscriptions
Published July 04, 2011, 05:25 AM

Potato growers tackle challenges

The U.S. potato industry faces challenges ranging from foreign roadblocks on exports to a proposed limit on how many spuds can be served in U.S. school lunchrooms.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

The U.S. potato industry faces challenges ranging from foreign roadblocks on exports to a proposed limit on how many spuds can be served in U.S. school lunchrooms.

But industry officials say they’re confident of meeting the challenges.

“We have great leadership in this industry, and we’re working hard,” says Justin Dagen, president of the National Potato Council and a Karlstad, Minn., farmer.

The Washington-based National Potato Council held its annual summer meeting June 22 to 24 in Grand Forks, N.D. More than 100 growers from around the country attended.

The organization, which provides a unified voice for growers nationwide, typically holds its summer meeting near the home of its grower/president.

The group looked at several key issues during the meeting.

Pesticide paperwork

The National Potato Council has been fighting the proposed National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, known as NPDES, which will require general permits for pesticides applied “to, over or near” U.S. waters.

NPDES is scheduled to become effective Oct. 31.

For many decades, pesticide use has been subject to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. But under a 2009 federal court ruling, pesticide applicators will need a NPDES permit if the chemical reaches any body of water.

Potato growers say NPDES has no environmental benefit and that it will be “a paperwork nightmare,” costing as much as $1 billion to implement in the first year.

However, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee have passed House Resolution 872, “The Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act.”

The Senate Ag Committee approved the legislation June 22, during the National Potato Council’s summer meeting

“There’s been progress,” says Doug Hanks, a St. Anthony, Idaho, grower, and vice president of the National Potato Council’s environmental affairs committee.

Now, the full Senate needs to approve H.R. 872 before Oct. 31, he and other growers say.

Slow progress on exports

Selling more spuds to foreign customers remains a priority for potato growers. Obstacles to expanded export remain, too.

“These things move so slowly. (Even so), we do see things happening that are positive,” says Randy Hardy, an Oakley, Idaho, grower and vice president of the NPC’s trade affairs committee.

One area of progress involves the trucking dispute between Mexico and America. As part of the longstanding disagreement, Mexico imposed a tariff on the import of 89 U.S. products, including potatoes.

It now appears that the trucking dispute will be resolved later this summer, which would set the stage for the tariff to be dropped.

“There’s been enough pressure from industries such as ours that have been damaged by this that we will see an agreement and those tariffs will come off,” Hardy says.

He’s optimistic that Egypt will become an increasingly important market for U.S. seed spuds.

Already, Egyptian potato production is on the upswing, rising from 1.7 million tons in 2000 to 4 million in 2009, according to information from the National Potato Council.

The U.S. was able to get seed for testing into Egypt before the massive demonstrations last winter that led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarek.

Potatoes in the tests have been harvested and the results are being analyzed, Hardy says.

“Egypt appears to be a very strong potential market for seed,” he says.

U.S. potato growers would like to sell more spuds to China, but little progress is being made, Hardy says.

“It’s a potentially huge market. Right now, the Chinese are being very difficult to negotiate with,” he says.

The Chinese have linked buying more U.S. potatoes with the issue of increasing their apple exports to America —

something the powerful U.S. apple industry opposes, Hardy says.

On a brighter note, it recently was announced that a second chipping plant will be built in Japan, he says.

“It’s positive that Japan continues to be a building market,” he says.

New farm bill looms

Potato growers, like other U.S. farmers, anticipate that the 2012 farm bill will bring reduced federal funding for agriculture.

“There’s not going to be a whole lot of money out there,” says Randy Mullen, a Pasco, Wash., grower and vice president of the NPC’s legislative and government affairs committee. “We’re going to have to focus on what we want to do and work very hard to attain funding for what we think are high priorities,” he says.

Potato growers belong to the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, which promotes the interests of about 40 U.S. specialty crops.

The 2008 farm bill dedicated about $3 billion in funding for issues involving specialty crop pests and disease, nutrition, research and conservation.

None of the money went for direct payments or subsidies for individual growers, according to information from the National Potato Council.

Assessing food safety

Potato growers hired Seattle-based Intertox to prepare a risk assessment of potatoes and food safety.

“Of course, we think potatoes are very low risk,” Mullen says.

Intertox is a scientific consulting and researching firm involved in public health and environmental risk issues.

Potato industry officials will be studying a draft of the report, which looks at the use of chemicals and a variety of other factors.

Growers interested in obtaining a copy of the report should contact the National Potato council.

Ultimately, the potato industry will develop a “guidance document,” which identifies risks and ways to mitigate those risks, and the document will be given to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, industry leaders say.

Spuds and schools

Perhaps the most important issue to U.S. potato growers this summer is a proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to limit the amount of spuds served in school lunchrooms.

USDA would allow no more than one cup of starchy vegetables, including potatoes, to be served per week.

Potato growers — who have been working for months to stop the proposal — say it makes no scientific or nutritional sense and would increase the cost of school meals by 14 cents per lunch and 50 cents per breakfast.

In June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill directing USDA to issue food standards that don’t increase the cost of providing school menus.

The Senate will take up the issue next.

Mullen says potato growers will continue to work against the USDA proposal.

Growers urged to unite

Growers from across the country should set aside regional differences and work together, says Lee Frankel, president and chief executive of the United Potato Growers of America and one of the speakers at the National Potato Council business meeting.

United, a Salt Lake City-based cooperative, seeks to manage its national potato supply to improve growers’ profits.

Among Frankel’s recommendations to growers:

- Communicate with your sales organization.

- Understand your cost as a grower.

- Determine acceptable return.

- Avoid surprises, avoid fire sales.

- Know what’s coming from your region and the rest of the country.

Steve Crane, a grower from Exeter, Maine, will serve as the National Potato Council’s 2012 president. Accordingly, the organization will hold its 2012 summer meeting July 11 to 13 in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Tags: