(March 17, 5:30 p.m.) DENVER — Competition and market access are the two biggest issues facing the potato industry as it tries to expand exports.

“We had been benefiting from having a weak dollar, but that has also made the cost of international programs higher,” said Bart Connors, immediate past chairman of the U.S. Potato Board, in his final chairman’s report March 12 during the board’s annual meeting.

Increasing costs of operations overseas are the main driver for a larger international marketing budget planned for the board’s 2010 fiscal year. Board members on March 13 voted to increase grower assessments from 2.5 to 3 cents per cwt. and of the estimated $1.5 million increase for the fiscal year, the international marketing budget is slated to see a $440,000 bump.

Potato production is expanding around the globe, particularly in developing countries, while it has leveled off or decreased in developed countries. The U.S. is the fourth-largest producer.

Cheryl Koompin, whose family owns and operates Koompin Bros., American Falls, Idaho, and Tom Qualey, a chip stock grower and partner in Three Oake Farms, Sherman, Maine, co-chaired the potato board’s 2008 international marketing committee, and they reported on progress in export markets on March 12.

The committee expects the economies of Japan, Korea and Mexico to see negative growth in 2009, with declining demand in those countries. Projections call for those markets to pick back up in 2010, they reported.

“We have to find places we aren’t selling to today,” said Tim O’Connor, president of the U.S. Potato Board. “The U.S. is not nearly as open a playing field as the rest of the world.”

Consumption in both North America and Europe are already high, so the board’s initiatives focus on other countries. In the fresh arena, the board plans to focus on introducing new potato varieties to countries that are familiar with U.S. russet or white potatoes.

“Consumers are not aware of many varieties that are available, so we are providing retailers with information and working with chefs to get potato varieties on the menus,” Koompin said. “We focus on introducing red, yellow and purple, because for many, they’re unknown.”

Last fall, the board coordinated a promotion with two retail outlets in Singapore, increasing sales 150% in those stores, the committee reported. Another emphasis is expanding the potato varieties consumed in Mexico, as the country’s consumers typically only purchase white or russet potatoes.

The committee also coordinated events in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia that included education workshops for students, sampling activities, demonstrations, chef education and participation in trade shows in both retail and foodservice outlets. It is also expanding its Best In Class retail merchandising program to Singapore and Hong Kong.

“All the board does internationally helps every U.S. exporter sell potatoes,” Koompin said. “It keeps U.S. potatoes at the top of people’s minds.”