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State of the spud

Red River valley area potato growers combined this winter's annual meeting with an opportunity to hear from a national leader at the International Crops Expo.

Red River valley area potato growers combined this winter's annual meeting with an opportunity to hear from a national leader at the International Crops Expo.

National Potato Council executive director John Keeling told producers crowd gathered Feb. 21 in Grand Forks, N.D., that the new federal farm bill is a major priority this year.

"This is the most involved we, and the specialty crops industry in general, have never been in the policy aspects of a farm," he says. "And it's the most ambitious agenda we've ever had for a farm bill."

Keeling says that in the past, potato growers have relied on maintaining the planting flexibility restrictions, which has become an issue of equity.

"If I'm growing potatoes and not receiving any payments on the acres I'm growing potatoes, but I'm competing with someone who's growing potatoes but also receiving payment for growing corn or soybeans or something else on that land, it's a basic inequity," he says.

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"Our attitude before has been, 'go ahead and pay those guys and pay these other guys, or even pay us on our other acres, but on our acres where we grow potatoes, let's not pay somebody for their activity of growing something else plus planting potatoes.'"

Federal support

Keeling says specialty crops such as fruits and vegetables account for 37 percent of farm gate value for agriculture. If you add in horticultural products, the market segment swells to 50 percent.

"So does it make any sense to provide 95 percent of the federal support for five crops, then you've got 50 percent of agriculture you don't do anything for?" he asks.

The debate over possible changes has included talk of direct payments.

"But overwhelmingly, the growers I represent, and growers from other commodities, agreed that was not what they wanted," Keeling says. "They did not want the government in their business that way."

What the group will pursue is support for pest management, enhancing trade opportunities and addressing conservation concerns. A bill was submitted and rejected last year. This year, it's asking for a specialty crop title in the new farm bill.

"We were pleased that the (U.S.) ag secretary put a significant emphasis on specialty crops in the administration's proposals, either enhancing existing programs or creating new specialty crop programs."

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Meanwhile, Keeling thinks there will be stronger domestic markets for potatoes in the future, especially in light of recent moves toward transfat-free cooking by major fast-food chains and manufacturers.

"It doesn't instantaneously change people's perceptions of french fries, but it does take away one of the arguments people have used as to why french fries are less desirable."

Keeling says the changing consumer market for potatoes and other processed foods has prompted the ag industry to take notice, encouraging them to be more responsive to demands for variety, convenience and healthfulness.

"We can do a better job of responding to consumer messages on that sort of thing," he says.

Local concerns

Northern Plains Potato Growers Association President Duane Maatz says his organization's main challenge is more immediate and local, and his group's meeting focused on more immediate challenges.

Maatz says important goals such as research funding are suffering because too many members are refunding their checkoff contributions. While Minnesota has no refund provision for individual growers, North Dakota does, and Maatz wants the state Legislature to change that.

"We're trying to create a system where we could have a grower referendum," he explains. "If they vote 'yes,' they would remove the refund provision from our industry promotion act. Then we'd have an all-inclusive situation as far as funding goes.

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"Our problem is we have some people who are benefiting the greatest who are refunding the most dollars."

Maatz says the grandfathers of some of this region's more traditional potato growers took money from their own pockets to build the association's offices and research farm, which provide support for future growers.

With less money coming in, Maatz says a bigger percentage of their budget is spent on basic overhead costs such as buildings, utilities and staff.

"We've eliminated two positions in our office already, and we've shrunk other expenses as much as we can, but we're simply not able to fund as much research as we want because of those operational costs," he states.

"The programming part of our budget is where we want to expand, because that drives what we do."

Valley productionIn the Red River Valley, Maatz thinks potato production will be relatively stable this year. He expects 25 million hundredweight will be produced in North Dakota, down slightly from 2004's numbers, but up about 5 million hundredweight from 2005.

"We would be back at the plateau that, I would say, is comfortable for where North Dakota should be in producing potatoes."

One issue Maatz is keeping an eye on with respect to potato planting is corn acreage. On the one hand, he thinks competition for acres will help alleviate concerns about overproduction.

However, with corn, Maatz says you might see landowners who once grew potatoes opt for corn because it's less risky from a cost and labor standpoint.

"Or you may have another producer who wants to compete to rent those acres and grow corn," Maatz says.

"It is creating a little bit of heartburn when it comes to getting that acre of land. There's a finite supply of land, but it's even more tightly held when you talk about irrigation. The irrigated acres is where the bulk of our process potatoes are grown, so access to the land is a pretty big deal."

Then there's the angle of supply and demand.

"This competition has also had a pull on driving up potato values, which is good for people," Maatz says. "But we hate to see people have to spend those dollars on the land."

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