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National potato industry leaders provide updates

By: Bill Schaefer
Published in Blog on  November 25, 2019

WASHINGTON D.C. - During the Idaho Potato Commission’s 2019 Harvest Meeting, attendees received potato industry updates from leaders of the National Potato Council and Potatoes USA.

Located in Washington, D.C., the NPC is the lobbying arm for the nation’s potato industry. Potatoes USA, which is governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a marketing organization representing commercial potato growers in the United States.

Potato consumption rising

Potatoes USA CEO Blair Richardson told the audience that economic indicators show both potato consumption as well as consumer appreciation of potatoes are on the rise.

He said potato processing plants are experiencing difficulty in meeting demand for product.

“We are starting to see a situation where demand is outpacing supply,” Richardson said. “The processors cannot keep pace.”

2020 election

NPC CEO Kam Quarles opened his presentation with a brief discussion on the importance of next year’s election without delving into partisan politics.

“Who’s sitting in the White House, who’s populating agencies like EPA and USDA, will have a material impact on all or our businesses,” he said.

He then reminded everyone that an aggregate of 80,000 votes carried President Donald Trump to victory in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, giving him the necessary electoral college votes to win the 2016 election.

USMCA trade pact

Quarles addressed the potential ratification of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which is designed to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“USMCA needs a House vote (and) we think the votes are there,” he said. “Speaker (of the House Nancy) Pelosi has to put it on the floor and then the Senate should approve it fairly quickly. We just don’t want to let it linger into the election.”

We say potatoes, Mexico says avocadoes

Quarles discussed the ongoing litigation to allow importation of U.S. potatoes throughout Mexico. Currently, U.S. potatoes are restricted to a 26-kilometer import zone in Mexico and U.S. potato growers seek to allow the sale of fresh American potatoes in all of Mexico.

“Right now, we have several cases sitting before the Mexican Supreme Court,” Quarles said. “If there is a positive rule it will empower the Mexican government to publish the necessary technical documents to allow fresh potatoes to be imported to the country.”

Quarles said Mexico’s avocado industry recently petitioned the U.S. to allow more Mexican avocadoes into the U.S.

He said USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s response to Mexico’s request was that he wanted to use that request as leverage to get American potatoes into Mexico.

“It’s very simple,” Quarles said. “This provides the leverage to get this issue resolved once and for all but we can’t lose that leverage and it needs to be used effectively.”

He said that once Mexico’s avocado industry realized their petition for increased market access was being linked to the U.S. potato industry’s court case, they became more of an ally for U.S. potatoes.

“And so, an immediate reaction happened and they got more activated,” Quarles said. “They started talking to their government. Cables started flying back and forth. Meetings started happening. We need to continue to use that leverage. We cannot lose it. The administration is in the exact right place on this and we need to see this all the way to the finish line.”

Trans-Pacific Partnership

One of Trump’s first executive actions was pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement previously negotiated by the Obama administration and awaiting congressional ratification at the time of Trump’s inauguration.

“Stepping out of the (TPP), we lost tariff benefits that the U.S. potato industry had negotiated but our competitors were taking advantage of,” Quarles said.

However, Quarles said that the Trump administration used the structure of the TPP tariff benefits in a recent free trade agreement for process potatoes with Japan.

Now Quarles would like to see this leveraged to include fresh potato access to Japan.

“We’ve been working on, much like Mexico, fresh potato access to Japan for a very long time,” Quarles said. “If we get Mexico and Japan right, together those could potentially be $200 million of additional U.S. potato exports annually.”

Potatoes in school breakfast and lunch programs

Quarles lauded past success in getting potatoes back into the federal school breakfast and lunch programs and cited Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, for his role in securing access for potatoes in the programs.

However, the program requires annual federal approval in the form of a public policy rider and the NPC and a bipartisan group of legislators are pushing the rider forward, he said.

Potato LEAF and Potato PAC

NPC Chief Operating Officer Mike Wenkel announced a couple of revisions incorporated at the 2019 NPC summer meeting.

A new foundation – Potato Leadership, Education and Advancement Foundation (Potato LEAF) – has been created to foster and develop future leadership for the organization. Potato LEAF will be introduced at the 2020 Potato Expo in Las Vegas in January.

A name change from POPAC to Potato PAC has been instituted so that there will be no confusion when politicians receive donations from the Potato Political Action Committee.


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