Colorful U.S. varieties intrigue buyers, Strebin says
By JOHN O'CONNELL
The first commercial shipment of U.S. fresh table-stock potatoes ever made to Vietnam included spuds from four growers in Oregon, Washington and California.
Dan Strebin, a partner in Strebin Farms in Troutdale, Ore., assembled the initial shipment -- 14 metric tons of Russets, reds, purples and yellow-fleshed varieties.
The shipment arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on Sept. 21.
Strebin said the Vietnamese, who have their own small potato industry and import from China, had been using dyes to create colorful potatoes and were intrigued by the naturally colored U.S. varieties.
He anticipates he'll export to Vietnam on a monthly basis.
Strebin credits the milestone to market development efforts by the U.S. Potato Board and others, commencing immediately after Vietnam was opened to fresh U.S. spud shipments in July 2010. Current permits held by Vietnamese importers allow them to bring in U.S. table-stock spuds through December, but USPB officials anticipate importers will have little difficulty in getting new permits for 2013.
Foreign exports account for about half of Strebin's business, and he said his company is well versed in trade with Asia.
Though Vietnam is a relatively small and developing market, Strebin sees potential for growth, especially in the chipping business. He made some fresh chipping variety shipments to Vietnam prior to sending the country its first U.S. table-stock supply.
"I look for the market to improve," he said, adding he also hopes to mix in onions and other root crops with spud shipments to Vietnam.
John Toaspern, USPB's international marketing vice president, said U.S. fresh table spuds would be pricey for most Vietnamese but are a good fit for the country's growing tourism and restaurant industries.
"It's not going to be a huge market to start with, but it has the potential for steady growth," Toaspern said.
During the last complete market year, which spanned from June 2011 to June 2012, Vietnam imported 77,328 metric tons of potato products. The U.S. shipped 487 metric tons, compared with 76,339 metric tons from China.
USPB research conducted after the opening of Vietnam to U.S. fresh spuds, funded by the USDA Market Access Program, showed the Vietnamese were familiar with their domestic and Chinese spud varieties, but not American potatoes.
To improve access into Vietnam, USPB opened an office in the country, staffed by a Vietnamese firm, and has made contacts with retailers, importers and food service operators. With funding from USDA's Quality Samples Program, USPB sent sample fresh table-stock shipments for the Vietnamese to showcase at food shows and chef demonstrations. U.S. spuds were also sent to 1,033 restaurants, hotels and food catering services in Vietnam, Toaspern said.
Vietnamese fruit and vegetable importers participated in a reverse trade mission in October 2011, during which they toured Idaho growing operations and packing facilities. Earlier this month, they returned to see the Oregon and Washington potato industries.
"I educated them as much as I could on the differences between potatoes and their uses," Strebin said. "If somebody can tell me what their use is, I can ship them what they need."