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Many different potatoes were on display Wednesday, February 21, 2018 for guests to examine at the International Crop Expo (ICE) at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D. Nick Nelson / Agweek

Think 'performance vegetable' - Spud industry going on offensive

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — The U.S. potato industry likes to describe its product as "America's favorite vegetable."

But the industry acknowledges that critics have put potato marketing efforts "on the defensive," causing "us to say that it's OK to eat potatoes," said Blair Richardson, president and CEO of Potatoes USA, the nation's potato marketing agency.

Now, his group is close to approving a marketing push that would put potatoes "on the offensive," with "us saying that you should be eating potatoes," he said.

The push will encourage consumers — who sometimes use the term "couch potato" now — to focus on potatoes' nutritional properties and think of spuds as a "performance vegetable," Richardson said.

He spoke Feb. 21 during the first day of the two-day International Crop Expo at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D. Roughly 4,000 people and 170 exhibitors are expected to attend.

The Crop Expo resumes at 9 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m. Feb. 22. Admission and parking are free.

The Crop Expo — created by the combination of events hosted individually by small grains, potato and soybean/dry bean groups after the Alerus Center opened — hosts both general educational sessions as well as ones geared to spuds, small grains and soybeans/dry beans.

The Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota — where the two states' potato production is concentrated — is the nation's leading producer of red potatoes and the only region that produces in volume for all of the chip, fresh, seed and process markets.

One sign of how important the Red River Valley is in the nation's potato production: The International Crop Expo regularly attracts a number of top potato industry officials, which is the case again this year.

Attendees included John Keeling, executive vice president of the National Potato Council, which represents potato growers on federal legislative, regulatory, environmental and trade issues, and Mark Klompien, CEO of United Potato Growers of America, a farmer cooperative that describes itself as "focusing on improving grower sustainability through better understanding of potato supply and demand."

Klompien said national red potato prices have become more stable. He attributed that, at least in part, to growers outside the Red River Valley better coordinating their planting strategy to potato-growing conditions in the RRV.

A good red potato crop in the Red River Valley tends to push down prices, which encourages growers elsewhere to plant fewer reds and moderate the price decline. A poor crop of red spuds in the RRV tends to push up prices, encouraging growers elsewhere to plant more reds and moderate the price increase. The net result is more stable red prices, Klompien said.

Yellow potatoes are increasingly popular with U.S. consumers. Though production of them continues to grow steadily, consumption of yellow spuds is rising, too, keeping yellow prices high enough to be profitable, Klompien said.

'Unique administration'

Keeling said President Donald Trump has "the most unique administration in anyone's memory."

Trump, among other things, has changed how presidents communicate with the public, Keeling said.

The existing farm bill — the centerpiece of U.S. food and ag policy — expires in September. Farm groups, as well as the Senate and House ag committees, are working to craft and approve a new one before then, Keeling said.

"We'll get one (a new farm bill.) The question is, will it get done on time?" he said.

A bigger concern for many in ag is the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which the Trump administration is negotiating, Keeling said.

"We know NAFTA is good for ag. But we don't know yet what's going to happen with it," Keeling said.

'A great place to be'

Potatoes USA has been working for the past year on its fledgling plan to put potato marketing on the offensive. The organization is expected to make an official decision in the next few weeks on whether to go ahead with the plan, Richardson said.

The marketing push would enhance the potato industry's already bright future, he said.

Americans in general are eating increasingly often away from home, and that will help potatoes. The food service industry — businesses, institutions and companies that prepare meals outside the home — likes potatoes because they can be prepared and used in many ways, Richardson said.

"Potatoes are a great place to be," Richardson said. "I don't know any other industry I'd rather be in."