Editor’s note: This is the 11th story in a series exploring opportunities and issues of potato growers across the region.
More than $700 million in potatoes grown by Washington state farmers are now exported to 50-plus countries. This is welcome news for growers, processors and local economies, considering our nation’s relatively flat demand for spuds combined with President Donald Trump’s hatred of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
“Growth in exports did not occur overnight for family potato farms in Washington. It has taken decades of relationship building and consumer education, along with the U.S. government’s help removing tariffs and other barriers placed on the food we produce and sell overseas,” says Matt Harris, Washington State Potato Commission (WSPC) director of government affairs.
“Under the guidance of our commission we have recently developed market connections in the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar through state-led trade missions,” he says. “The commission sees opportunities in these countries for potential growth of exports regarding fresh and chip stock potatoes.”
The biggest demand is for frozen processing potatoes, and leading the way are Japan, China, South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Australia, Mexico, Singapore and Canada — six of which are on the Pacific Rim.
Harris and other agricultural leaders interviewed for our series on potatoes touted passage of the TPP, which they believe would greatly bolster the export of spuds and other agricultural goods to the Pacific Rim.
But shortly after being elected president, Trump said he would do everything he could to withdraw U.S. participation in TPP, which could kill the entire partnership.
Trump calls TPP “a potential disaster for our country,” and emphasizes, “We will negotiate fair, bilateral trade deals that bring jobs and industry back onto American shores.”
Harris says that WSPC supports TPP — or something very similar — because it would promote increased trade with 11 “flourishing” Asia-Pacific nations.
In addition, he says, “TPP would harmonize regulations and increase customs efficiency in ways that ensure increased and more predictable trade flows through our nation’s ports.”
For example, he says, Vietnamese consumers pay a 20% tax on every dollar to purchase an imported U.S. fresh potato. “TPP would wipe out this tax, making the nutritious food we grow more affordable.”
WSPC and other supporters of TPP say that the partnership would bolster economic ties among the 12 countries, substantially cutting tariffs, which, in turn, could boost both trade and economic growth. In addition to the U.S., other countries that negotiated for TPP are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
If indeed TPP is dead, some say that China will be the big beneficiary, which could push its own trade deals with Pacific Rim countries. The partnership, which was negotiated for more than seven years, was being called a major victory for President Barack Obama and his administration, which called the agreement a “pivot to Asia.”
Regardless of what happens to TPP, Harris says, WSPC will continue actively marketing spuds to stay globally competitive.
In addition to tariffs, another challenge facing the export of potatoes and other agricultural products is transportation.
“Getting products to and through our ports is an issue that we and others are working on. Ensuring our infrastructure is suitable for traffic in and out of the port system is key,” says Ryan Holterhoff, WSPC’s director of marketing and industry affairs. “Also critical is ensuring that freight is moving through the ports in a timely fashion, as we learned during the most recent port slowdown.”
Labor is another major issue confronting agricultural producers in Washington, including potato growers, Holterhoff says. “A shortage of workers and potential issues arising from the hike to our state’s minimum wage are some of the key points around labor that we’re working on.”
In November, Washington state voters approved a ballot measure that increased the minimum wage from $9.47 to $11 an hour for all workers, including those in agriculture, starting Jan. 1. And by 2020, the minimum wage will be $13.50.
Holterhoff says other issues facing agriculture go beyond the pocketbook.
“The general public today is more removed from farming than ever before, and this is causing an overall disconnect between people and farming practices. This also leads to a lack of understanding of where our food even comes from, and how farmers ensure that consumers are getting the best products incorporated within their meals,” he says.
“We are working with other commodity and ag groups around the state to be able to tell Washington’s farm and food story, and help reconnect people back to our family farms.”
For more, see Washington Grown at wagrown.com.
Washington has world’s most productive potato fields
About 250 Washington farms produced 10.5 billion pounds of potatoes last year. That’s enough to put a 33-pound sack of spuds into the arms (or baby carriage) of every person in the country.
Only one state tops that figure: Idaho, which produces 13.9 billion pounds last year on almost twice as many acres.
Collectively, the two states grow just over half of the potatoes in the country, with Wisconsin, North Dakota, Colorado and Oregon ranking third through sixth.
The main potato-growing regions in Washington are the Columbia Basin and Skagit Valley.
“Growers in the Skagit Valley mainly produce specialty potatoes [reds, yellows, whites and purples], whereas the Columbia Basin you will find mainly russet production, but also some of the other specialty varieties,” says Holterhoff.
Approximately 170,000 acres of potatoes were planted in Washington in 2016, and the state’s potato acreage has been relatively stable for several years.
Washington ranks first in the country in per-acre potato production; in fact, the state is home to the most productive potato fields in the world, Holterhoff says.
“The growing region provides long days, cool nights, mineral-rich soils and controlled irrigation. That, combined with the sustainable practices of our farmers, allows Washington to rank more than 40% above the U.S. average in per-acre production.”
WSPC dedicates more than $1 million each year toward potato-based research to help its farmers continue to grow the best crops they can — both quality and quantity, Holterhoff says. These projects range from variety development to disease control, and include many issues in between.
In 2012 the state potato commissions in Washington, Oregon and Idaho launched a new cooperative effort in research. The aim is to increase cooperation and efficiency of the research programs funded by the three potato commissions, which total about $2 million annually.
Overseeing grant funding for the three commissions is the Northwest Potato Research Consortium. It has a host of information on its website nwpotatoresearch.com, including a link devoted to beneficial insects as well as libraries on harmful insects, diseases and research.
Who are the 15 members that run the Washington State Potato Board?
The Moses Lake-based Washington State Potato Commission is governed by 15 commissioners from the state’s lucrative potato industry.
Nine are grower-elected positions, while the other five are positions appointed by the commissioners. In addition, a representative from the Washington State Department of Agriculture sits on the board. Commissioners include:
• District 1 growers: Rex Calloway, Quincy, WSPC chairman; Heath Gimmestad, Moses Lake; Chris Olsen, Othello; and Albert Stahl, Ritzville.
• District 2 growers: Jared Balcom, Derek Davenport, Mark Hammer and Ted Tschirky, all from the Pasco area.
• District 3 grower: Darrin Morrison, Mount Vernon.
• At-large growers: Ellie Charvet, Pasco; Roger Hawley, Bellingham; and Mike Madsen, Plymouth;
• Processor: Mike Dodds, Moses Lake. Dodds is the Washington state raw materials and environmental manager for Basic American Foods, a family owned, California-based company that processes and packages U.S.-grown potatoes and beans at its facilities in Washington and Idaho.
• Industry supplier: Stacy Kniveton, Pasco. Kniveton is field sales representative at Wilbur-Ellis Co., an international marketer and distributor of a variety of products, including plant protection and nutrition, seed technology and adjuvants.
• WSDA representative: Rianne Perry, Olympia, international trade specialist for WSDA’s International Marketing Program.
WSPC was established in 1956 to collect assessments from the state’s potato growers; this, in turn, allows WSPC to pursue its mission on behalf of farmers. The current assessment is 4 cents per hundredweight.
The main functions of WSPC are to enhance trade opportunities; advance environmentally sound production and cultural practices through research; and represent the interests of growers in areas relating to public and industry education, trade barriers, crop protection, irrigation and transportation.
The WSPC, which has an annual budget of about $3 million, represents the interests of growers (currently numbering about 250) in its work with businesses, domestic and international markets, the media, and state and national political leaders.