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Potato leaders look to challenges ahead

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Matthew Weaver
National Potato Council CEO John Keeling says the farm bill is mostly positive for specialty crop research funding, but cautions farmers that new permitting rules could open the door to legal challenges.

KENNEWICK, Wash. — The leader of the National Potato Council says the farm bill now in the Senate means more research dollars for specialty crops like potatoes.

Every other agriculture group took “significant cuts” in the bill, said council CEO John Keeling, but the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance — which includes the council, Western Growers and Florida Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association — saw increases for research, nutrition funding and market access.

Keeling and other regional potato industry leaders shared their priorities for 2014 during the Washington Oregon Potato Conference:

• Under National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permitting, farmers applying pesticides on or near bodies of water must use the product according to the label and obtain a Clean Water Act permit.

The new requirement for farmers to get an additional permit to do their normal pest management activities is an “enormous problem,” Keeling said.

It also opens them to legal challenges from activists alleging  pesticide use on the land impacts aquatic species, Keeling said.

Efforts to fix the regulation within the farm bill did not succeed, he said.

“You could be applying a pesticide according to the exact (Environmental Protection Agency) label, doing everything right, and still be subject to citizen or other suits under the Clean Water Act,” he said.

Keeling said the council will keep working on the issue.

• Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington Potato Commission, said farmers are on alert after about 2,000 acres of potatoes in the south Columbia Basin were hit by bacterial ring rot. The disease also affected farms in Oregon and Idaho, he said.

“It’s on everyone’s radar screen, but it’s something we think we can manage,” he said.

Voigt recommends good sanitation to avoid the disease. Processors are suggesting growers be tested, and he expects the industry to implement new steps to prevent a reoccurrence.

That includes more transparent reporting when a farmer thinks he has bacterial ring rot, Voigt said.

“Right now, it’s like a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ type of thing,” he said. “Nobody wants to admit to having it.”

• Bill Brewer, president and CEO of the Oregon Potato Commission, sees the most promise in building a new market for Pacific Northwest potatoes in Vietnam. The Oregon and Washington commissions will send a trade team in November.

The Vietnam market has been open for two growing seasons. The first year, two or three containers were shipped from the United States, followed by roughly 15 containers the following year. A container of potatoes is typically 40 tons.

Brewer expects the number of containers to triple again this year.

“We really believe that easily the market could withstand 5 to 10 containers per week into Vietnam,” Brewer said. “The potential is there. We’re just trying to educate the consumer enough to recognize the differences between our potatoes in the U.S. and Chinese potatoes they’re currently buying.”

• Brewer hopes to see movement to reopen markets in South Korea, after zebra chip concerns caused the country to close access for U.S. fresh table stock potatoes. The United States can still export chipping potatoes to Korea for use in potato chips, Brewer said, and the Washington and Oregon commissions are working to maintain that market. Reopening the table stock market may take another year, he said.





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