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Published July 08, 2013, 09:17 AM

Farmers ‘faultless’

A former Red River Valley potato industry official says a lawsuit alleging price-fixing in the fresh potato industry hasn’t changed any activities so far because producers and cooperatives targeted in the suit are faultless.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — A former Red River Valley potato industry official says a lawsuit alleging price-fixing in the fresh potato industry hasn’t changed any activities so far because producers and cooperatives targeted in the suit are faultless.

An April civil lawsuit filed in federal court in Kansas by Associated Wholesale Grocers Inc. claims that United Potato Growers of America and others conspired to artificially inflate fresh potato prices by agreeing to plant fewer acres, destroy some potato stocks and limit the number of spuds for sale. It has been combined with a related antitrust case in Idaho.

Ron Offutt, the nation’s largest potato producer and Fargo, N.D., businessman, is named in the Kansas suit. His spokesman has said Offutt is out of the country and likely won’t comment when he returns.

Duane Maatz, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association in Wausau, represents potato growers throughout Wisconsin. Four years ago, he moved from a position as president of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association in East Grand Forks, Minn. He’s a 1982 graduate of North Dakota State University.

Maatz says Wisconsin does have a growers group associated with United Potato Growers of America. His organization provides some accounting and other consulting functions for that Wisconsin group. Maatz says he attends two or three meetings a year on an advisory basis and he or other staffers listen in on the co-op’s weekly phone conferences.

Maatz’s organization has 130 potato growing members. He says 42 percent of Wisconsin’s potato production is for the fresh market.

“It isn’t changing how we operate,” Maatz says of the lawsuit, noting that it doesn’t involve any “cease and desist” order, but that it creates a financial burden because of legal fees.

Potato growers in the suit are “entirely within the law,” Maatz says. “You should never be afraid of doing the right thing.” He says the Capper-Volstead cooperative law allowing farmer-grower cooperatives to share information has been around for 70 years. “Why should we let go of a law that’s good for us and meets the needs of the (consuming) community more than flooding the market?”

Maatz says the organization is primarily informational, letting members know about the size of the crop and inventories, consumption and trends. “The passing of information is the most important,” he says, adding that there are those in Idaho and elsewhere who are not part of the organization and plant potatoes that flood the market.

He says that despite the alleged control of potato production, fresh potato farmers have been losing money on a per-hundredweight basis since October. He says the organization allows farmers to expand acres and production, but primarily through a process of buying a quota from another existing farmer. He says that if “Mother Nature gives you a big crop,” the co-op considers an option to not dig all of them.

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