(April 8) State potato commissions are working with the National Potato Council, Washington, D.C., the federal government and increasingly with each other to try to open more overseas markets to fresh potatoes.

“Clearly, the competition isn’t just between Washington, Oregon and Idaho anymore,” said Pat Boss, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, Moses Lake.

Boss said the three Northwest potato producing states are pooling their dollars, through federal and state grants, to help open Pacific Rim countries to U.S. fresh potato exports.

“A lot of chip plants in Japan are running out of potatoes,” he said. “They do not have enough local supply, so they’re looking to us.”

Boss said fresh potatoes shipped to Asian countries for use in processing and fast-food restaurants can help displace Canadian, New Zealand and Australian exports. The project is demonstrating the value of U.S. potatoes through technical seminars like one scheduled in April to educate the trade. Raw potatoes fare better than processed potatoes such as chips that are shipped via ocean freight, Boss said.

“We’re making some progress there,” Boss said. “With our storage technology and experience exporting fresh potatoes, our quality will hold up very well throughout the season compared to the domestic product they’ve been using.”

TRICKLE DOWN EFFECT

Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice for the Idaho Potato Commission, Boise, said the push toward overseas processors is helping promote fresh potato exports.

“Japan does not allow fresh U.S. potatoes (imports),” he said. “Chains like Tony Roma’s, Chili’s and others that have baked potatoes on their menus still want to use Idaho potatoes, so they will use a frozen pre-baked potato for their potato from Idaho. That’s one of the ways we have been able to get Idaho potatoes on some of the menus there.”

Matthew Lantz, a trade policy analyst with Bryant Christie Inc., Seattle, a consulting firm retained by the National Potato Council, said the firm is working to overcome phytosanitary restrictions on fresh potato exports to Japan, China and Mexico.

The U.S. government and industry have petitioned China to allow market access for fresh potatoes from the Pacific Northwest states. Bilateral negotiations are scheduled for May in China.

Phytosanitary issues were prominent in bilateral technical discussions in December in Mexico City. The potato council is working with the U.S. government to ship pest-free potatoes and potato products to Mexico.

Colorado growers, through the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, Monte Vista, are working with the council to open doors to shipping fresh potatoes to Mexico, said Wayne Thompson, the committee’s executive director.

“Mexico banned fresh potato imports,” he said. “Simply by our location, only 400 miles away, Mexico offers a good market for us.”

CUBA UNDER CONSIDERATION

Potato grower-shippers also are discussing shipping potatoes to Cuba. The talk surfaced at a trade affairs committee meeting at the National Potato Council’s annual meeting in San Antonio Jan. 10.

Ed Macy, a grower from Culver, Ore., and the council’s vice president of trade affairs, said he believes the island nation presents an opportunity for potato exports.

“There’s a lot of people on that island,” he said. “They do consume a lot of potatoes and potato products. With our proximity to them, we make more sense than any other nation to supply their needs. It’s something we need to put on the front burners and explore.”

STRONG DOLLAR DOLDRUMS

Larry Sieg, sales manager for Sunfresh Inc., Royal City, Wash., said a strong U.S. dollar has hurt export sales.

“The dollar is really hurting us against all the currencies,” he said. “No matter where you go in the world, the dollar’s too strong. Hopefully the dollar will get less strong.”

Sieg said exports to Canada are off because of Canada’s currency being worth $1.50- 1.60 against the dollar.

“The Canadian dollar is not worth a hoot,” Sieg said. “It’s costing the Canadians a lot more money to buy our product.”

Fresh potato exports have increased to Asia for foodservice and retail use. The U.S. shipped 18,000 cwt. of fresh potatoes to Taiwan in 2001.

“Taiwan will be a great fresh export market,” Boss said. Potato exports have increased progressively since the market was opened to U.S. exports in 1998.

Gains also are being made in South Korea and China.