Washington and Oregon potato growers expect another year of robust export markets.

If there’s a big U.S. potato crop, as seems to be the case this upcoming season, there are few places better for Oregon growers to look than across the Pacific, said Bill Brewer, executive director of the Portland-based Oregon Potato Commission.

“Exports will continue to grow because of where we’re located,” Brewer said. “It makes sense that we move west rather than east.”

Expanding markets

Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong are more established Asian markets for Oregon shippers, and they hope to make deeper inroads into Japanese and Vietnamese markets this season as well, Brewer said.

In October, the commission will play host for the first time to a trade mission of Vietnamese produce buyers, Brewer said.

U.S. fresh potatoes were exported to Vietnam for the first time last season.

“Last fall we went to Vietnam,” he said. “It’s not a big market, but it’s definitely an emerging market.”

The October visit was timed to coincide with the end of the Oregon harvest and the Produce Marketing Association’s annual Fresh Summit convention, Brewer said.

Asia isn’t the only growing export market for Oregon potatoes. Shippers hope to send more to Mexico and other Latin American countries too, Brewer said.

Chris Voigt, executive director of the Moses Lake-based Washington State Potato Commission, attended the trade mission to Vietnam with Brewer and others, and he shares Brewer’s optimism.

“It’s truly on the cusp of breaking open,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of growth and westernization.”

Vietnam grows about half of the potatoes its people eat, Voigt said. The other half come largely from China, but as incomes increase, consumers are demanding something better.

“The quality doesn’t compare” between Chinese and Washington potatoes, Voigt said.

Voigt also said recent progress on trade talks with Mexico was encouraging.

“Realistically, we’re about a year away from anything expanding, so we’re taking a wait and see attitude, but we’re optimistic.”

Quality key for exports

Dave Long, chief executive officer of the Othello, Wash.-based United Fresh Potato Growers of Washington-Oregon, also expected additional growth in the export business for Oregon and Washington spuds.

“Exports will continue to grow as long as we ship the quality product that we do, and as long as the commissions continue to do a good job promoting,” Long said.

It’s a matter of simple economics, he said.

“The only place we have the freight advantage is going across the ocean.”

As for Mexico, the U.S. and Mexican governments have been talking about expanding the trade zone for a decade, Long said. But he is confident the talk will one day to turn to action.

“The only question is when,” he said. “Their people want our product.”

Exports will not account for significant volumes of Washington potatoes marketed by L&M Cos. Inc., Raleigh, N.C., this season, said Les Alderete, the company’s director of production and grower development.

“We send some to Canada, but none to the Pacific Rim,” he said. “We have looked at it, and bid on it. It’s just never come around.”