By SEAN ELLIS
Idaho's potato industry will have its eyes open for opportunities in China this week during the governor's trade mission to China.
Exports of U.S. potato products to China have increased rapidly in the past year and the Chinese market has huge potential, said Idaho Potato Commission representative Seth Pemsler.
Frozen U.S. potato products exported to China from July through December 2011 totaled 41,000 metric tons, a 35 percent increase over the same period in 2010. Dehydrated potato exports totaled 3,000 metric tons, a 226 percent increase.
As nice as those numbers are, Pemsler said, they pale in comparison to the potential in that country of over 1.3 billion people, which is one of the reasons the IPC hired a representative in China a year ago.
"The volume of China's potential is monumental because of the size of the country," saidPemsler, vice president of IPC's retail and international divisions.
During Idaho's April 14-21 trade mission to China, Pemsler will be assisting frozen potato product companies in trying to establish Idaho brands in that country. Even if Idaho brands can capture 2 percent of the market, that's still a huge number, he said.
"Once we get a branded product into a market, that opens doors to other branded products," Pemsler said. "China is so big that a small piece of China is still a huge piece."
Fresh U.S. potatoes are not allowed in China.
Pemsler will be joined by Con Agra Lamb Weston officials and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, who sold Idaho potatoes internationally for the J.R. Simplot Co. for 12 years.
During the mission, Picket Equipment, an Idaho company that sells bean harvesting equipment, will be looking to revive its sales to China, which have tapered off the past couple of years, said general manager Neil Harper.
Harper said Pickett is very interested in making contact with some of China's very large farm groups that can purchase up to 100 machines at a time.
The company is also interested in selling to small farmers who still use old-style donkey pulled thrashing machines, he said. "We've got some very small machines that would work well for them."
Idaho State Department of Agriculture representative Laura Johnson said the trade mission represents huge opportunities for Idaho's agricultural industry, which exports more than 25 percent of its products to foreign markets.
China was Idaho's fourth-largest destination for Gem State agricultural products in 2011, totaling $77 million, a 49 percent increase over the previous year.
Because of scheduling conflicts, the IPC, Con Agra and Pickett are the only participants from the agricultural sector on the mission. However, ISDA and department of commerce officials will be looking for every opportunity to promote all Idaho ag products, Johnson said.
The trade mission "is kind of small on the ag front but there are lots of opportunities," said Johnson, section manager of ISDA's market development division. "We will be on the lookout for opportunities for all Idaho ag products."