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Published February 19, 2014, 03:33 PM

WIC and Mexican trade restrictions still hot topics in potato industry

John Keeling. head of the National Potato Council, spoke Feb. 19 at the annual International Crop Expo at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D. The show, which combines activities sponsored by small grains, potato and soybean groups, is expected to draw 5,000 people and about 175 exhibits.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Passage of the farm bill allows the U.S. potato industry to cross off one big item from its to-do list. But several other challenges remain, the head of the National Potato Council said.

“Praise the Lord. We actually did it,” John Keeling said of the long-delayed farm bill, which President Barack Obama signed into law Feb. 7.

Now, easing Mexican trade restrictions on U.S. potatoes and changing a controversial provision in the federal Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, program are priorities, Keeling said.

Keeling spoke Feb. 19 at the annual International Crop Expo at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D. The show, which combines activities sponsored by small grains, potato and soybean groups, is expected to draw 5,000 people and about 175 exhibits.

The event ends Feb. 20, with doors opening at 9 a.m. and closing at 4 p.m.

Keeling is executive vice president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Potato Council. It seeks to provide a “unified voice” for the U.S. potato industry on national legislative, regulatory, environmental and trade issues.

Like most ag group leaders, Keeling worked for several years on the legislation, which he jokingly called the “2012/2013/2014 farm bill.”

The final result, however, is favorable for the potato industry. The farm bill, the centerpiece of U.S. agricultural and food legislation, contains $15 million for potato research, Keeling said.

WIC and spuds

But other issues remain.

One of the biggest is the exclusion of potatoes from the WIC program. WIC provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals and nutrition education for low-income mothers, and to infants and children up to age 5 at nutritional risk.

White potatoes are the only fresh fruit or vegetable excluded from WIC.

In 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled that women and children in WIC’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program can’t buy potatoes with the program’s vouchers.

Supporters of the exclusion said then, and now, that Americans consume enough starchy vegetables.

But the 2007 ruling was based on 1996 consumption data. More current data has found that women and children are now deficient in starchy vegetables, Keeling said.

Many women and children also are deficient in potassium and fiber, which potatoes provide, he said.

“The case for having potatoes in the program is strong.”

Keeling noted that WIC vouchers can be used to buy potatoes at farmers markets, but not at supermarkets.

“Obviously, there must not be a nutrition reason for excluding potatoes (from supermarket sales),” he said.

Though the effort has been long and difficult, “We’re getting closer and closer to getting this WIC thing fixed,” he said.

“I’ll say one thing about our industry. We don’t get everything fixed right away, but we don’t stop working on the issues that are important to us.”

Mexican restrictions

Expanding exports of U.S. fresh potatoes to Mexico is another longstanding priority for Keeling and others in his industry.

Currently, shipments of U.S. spuds are limited to 26 kilometers, or about 16 miles, of the U.S.-Mexican border. Mexican authorities say they’re worried about pests and disease from U.S. spuds.

Keeling said he’s optimistic that the issue will be resolved soon.

Given the distance to Mexico, potato growers in the Red River Valley of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota may not be particularly interested in Mexican restrictions on U.S. spuds, Keeling said.

Even so, the issue is important to growers in the two states, he said.

“If we get it (easing the restrictions) done, you’re looking at access to 100 million additional consumers. So it isn’t something this region should ignore, I think,” he said.

The Red River Valley 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.

‘Hungry girl’ and spuds

Eric Halvorson also spoke Feb. 19 at the International Crop Expo.

He’s co-chairman of the U.S. Potato Board’s international marketing committee and executive vice president of technology at Grand Forks-based Black Gold Farms, which raises potatoes in 11 states.

The Denver-based U.S. Potato Board is the nation’s potato marketing and research organization.

Among other things, the organization is working with Lisa Lillien, an author and TV personality who bills herself as “Hungry Girl.”

More information: www.hungrygirl.com.

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