Potato industry prods lawmakers to act
Agency doesn't budge on WIC potato purchase ban
By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- After serving up samples of their favorite tuber at the Capitol, officials of the Washington Potato Commission asked state senators for help in getting the attention of the USDA over a popular program aimed at mothers and children.
Chris Voigt, executive director of the commission, offered a summary of his well-publicized 60-day all-potato diet and asked the senators to consider passing a resolution challenging the USDA's stance.
The potato diet was intended to get the attention of the USDA, which bans the purchase of potatoes under the Women, Infants and Children's program. "But the USDA has not budged," he said, adding that the potato diet improved his health.
Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, chairman of the committee, told the potato officials, "If we can help with that resolution, please let us know."
Concerning trade issues, Voigt said the Pacific Northwest is at a big freight disadvantage for much of the world market, but has the advantage of its proximity to Pacific Rim countries. About 50 percent of Washington's potatoes go overseas. He also credited Gov. Chris Gregoire's trade mission to Asia with opening the fresh potato market in Vietnam.
He said Washington state's rich soil, long summer days and cool nights produce more potatoes per acre than anywhere in the world. Also its ag research facilities keep the state at the front of the quality curve.
Voigt urged that the Legislature stay alert to any proposed rules, regulations and tax incentives to keep costs low and to allow Washington producers to compete in the world marketplace.
Matt Harris, the commission's director of trade, said the trucking situation with Mexico is still not resolved two years after that country established tariffs on frozen french fries.
"The losses to the market total $60 million," he said, "and it has reduced acres from 145,000 in 2009 to 135,000 in 2010."
Also a fry plant in Prosser, Wash., has been shut down.
The state's delegation in Congress has been receptive to the issue, Harris said, and a concept document has been drafted. The Department of Transportation is trying to revive a pilot program, he said.
Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, asked if other countries have stepped in to meet the Mexican demand.
Harris said China has processing capacity, as do Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe.
Voigt said that as free trade agreements with South Korea remain unresolved, and "We're falling behind."