FORT HALL — Attendees at Idaho Potato Commission’s 2019 Harvest Meeting heard from industry leaders such as Potatoes USA President and CEO Blair Richardson, National Potato Council CEO Kam Quarles and NPC COO Mike Wenkel.
Located in Washington, D.C., the NPC is the lobbying arm for the nation’s potato industry.
“Our job is to bend federal and international policy to your benefit,” Quarles told the audience in describing NPC’s mission in his introduction.
We say potatoes, Mexico says avocados
Quarles offered an update on ongoing litigation to allow importation of U.S. potatoes throughout Mexico. Currently U.S. potatoes are restricted to a 26-kilometer import zone from the U.S. border with 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.”
While waiting for Mexico’s Supreme Court to issue a ruling Quarles said Mexico’s avocado industry had recently petitioned the U.S. to allow more Mexican avocados into the U.S.
Quarles said Department of Agriculture Secretary Sunny Perdue’s response to Mexico’s request was, “No, I want to use this as a 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 that 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.”
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 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, designed to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“USMCA needs a House vote; we think the votes are there,” Quarles said. “Speaker (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.”
One of President 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 the Trans-Pacific Partnership 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 with Japan for processed potatoes.
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. “The Japanese have been reticent to move that forward. We think that the leverage generated by negotiating on the tariff side of the House can give the administration some power to move forward on the fresh side of the House. 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 & lunch programs
Quarles lauded past success in getting potatoes back into the school breakfast and lunch programs and cited Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson for his role in securing access for potatoes in the programs.
However, the program requires annual 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.
Ag Labor Reform
Quarles also lauded Rep. Simpson and his congressional staff for their work in trying to move forward new and improved H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers legislation.
“Mr. Simpson has just done a tremendous amount of work, and his staff, in producing a very serious, bipartisan ag labor reform bill. It’s not a perfect bill; it’s a negotiated settlement,” Quarles said.
He said the legislation has a number of detractors and non-supporters, and passage through House, Senate and conference committee is going to be difficult.
“The big question right now is whether American agriculture can all bind together and move the process forward,” Quarles said. “There are very big players who are not supporting the House moving the bill through the process.”
Potato LEAF and Potato PAC
Wenkel announced a couple of revisions incorporated at the 2019 NPC summer meeting.
A new foundation, Potato Leadership, Education and Advancement Foundation (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 this January.
A name change from POPAC to Potato PAC has also been instituted so that there will be no confusion when politicians receive donations from the Potato Political Action Committee.
Potatoes USA is a marketing organization representing commercial potato growers in the United States and governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Blair Richardson told the audience that economic indicators show both potato consumption as well as consumer appreciation of potatoes are on the rise.
Richardson reported that 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 can not keep pace.”