As U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack departed Washington Dec. 8 for talks with Mexican officials, there was extra weight in his luggage.

More than one dozen members of Congress forwarded letters to Vilsack urging an end to the Mexican ban on shipping fresh U.S. potatoes to 96% of this nation’s southern neighbor. The agreement currently in effect limits potato exports to within 16 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., told Vilsack in her letter that she had been led to believe in 2003 that Mexico would work to open the rest of the country to imports by 2005.

“Now, five years later we are still waiting for full access to Mexico for our fresh potatoes,” she told Vilsack. “The restricted access we currently have generates sales of $24 million. That market could grow to $100 million if we were able to gain full access to Mexico for fresh potatoes.“

Another letter, authored by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and co-signed by Walden and 11 other Republican and Democratic members of Congress from Oregon, Idaho and Washington, said Mexico’s “arbitrary and unnecessary limitations were mainly due to Mexico’s unproven claims of phytosanitary issues with U.S. fresh potatoes.”

Lifting the ban would create at least $7 million in new revenue from increased exports for Oregon’s farmers and create new jobs in rural America, Walden said in his letter.

The Pacific Northwest potato industry views Mexico as something of a diamond in the rough.

“Expanding export opportunities to Mexico holds the largest potential of increasing sales for the fresh potato industry in the Pacific Northwest,” Dan Walchli, chairman of the Oregon Potato Commission, said in a news release.

Vilsack is meeting in Mexico with his counterpart, Mexico’s Secretary of Agriculture Francisco Javier Mayorga Castaneda.

During these tough economic times, it is especially important to work to expand the number of markets available to American agricultural products, Cantwell told Vilsack.