By RICHARD SMITH

For the Capital Press

TOKYO -- A major Japanese chip maker plans to boost imports of U.S. chipping potatoes, a company official says.

Japan's main chip maker, Calbee, requires about 200,000 tons of chipping potatoes a year, Calbee national potato center administrative division official Tomoki Hamamure said.

In 2010 a roughly 15 percent production drop in the country's main potato-growing area, the island of Hokkaido, resulted in a 20,000-ton shortage, Hamamure said.

Calbee plans to import 16,000 tons of U.S. potatoes this year.

"In the future, to ensure stable supplies, we plan to import about 15,000 tons a year," Hamamure said.

More U.S. potatoes will be available for the Japanese market, as the government extended in January the export-to-Japan period through July.

"In previous years, the U.S. had been exporting well under capacity here," said Keiichi Tanaka, program director for Uniflex Marketing, a Tokyo marketing firm which represents the U.S. Potato Board here.

Japan had banned fresh U.S. potatoes for decades because of a nematode issue, but five years ago allowed in fresh potatoes for chipping purposes from 13 states declared nematode-free during Japan's February-June potato offseason.

According to a Japan Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries report submitted during public hearings on the extension last year, there was no fear of a nematode problem resulting from the extension.

Also in January, the government added Montana and Nevada to the list of U.S. states eligible for chipping potato exports.

"The USDA reported those states were nematode-free," said Hitoshi Yoshimura, deputy director at the plant protection division of MAFF's food safety and consumer affairs bureau.

A total ban remains on Idaho fresh potatoes because of a past nematode problem. "Nematodes were again found in Idaho in April 2006," Yoshimura said.

Japan's imports of several other fresh vegetables rose significantly last year compared to 2010.

Total fresh onion imports rose 9 percent, from 413,018 to 449,525 tons, while those from the U.S. shot up 17 percent, from 69,824 to 81,663 tons.

Total lettuce imports rose 8 percent, from 8,210 to 8,885 tons, with U.S. product up 3.5 percent, from 5,238 to 5,421 tons.

Celery imports rose 6 percent from 164,874 to 175,301 tons overall, and imports from the U.S. jumped 16 percent, from 6,672 to 7,708 tons.

Total cauliflower imports fell 14 percent, but that's because Vietnam sent almost 4 tons in 2010 and none last year. As a result, Japan's 2011 imports of U.S. cauliflower shot up 17 percent year-on-year, from 10.7 to 12.5 tons.

Not all U.S. products fared as well.

For example, although overall carrot imports rose 23 percent, from 103,522 to 121,218 tons, U.S. carrots dropped 12 percent from 156 to 137 tons. Fresh broccoli imports rose 9 percent overall, from 88,837 to 99,299 tons, but U.S. broccoli fell 3 percent, from 35,284 to 34,820 tons.

"There was a broccoli production shortage in Arizona and California last year," said Jun Kamoshida, marketing department producer for Company Corp., a Tokyo marketing firm that represents Western Growers, an association of vegetable producers in those two states.

Fluctuations in Japan's vegetable import volumes basically result from yearly local production. The lower the yield, the higher the demand for imports, a manager at fruit and vegetable importer Tokyo Seika said.

"Since 2010, longer winters and extremely hot summers have played havoc on Japan's domestic crops," Yasunori Seino said.

Recommended for you