Industry turmoil sparks talk of consolidating groups

By DAVE WILKINS

Capital Press

United Potato Growers of Idaho said it has reached its goal of representing 80 percent of all fresh spud acres in the state, but it will move forward under new leadership.

The co-op declined to say what the percentage was prior to the membership drive or how many new members it picked up.

Failure to reach the 80 percent target could have resulted in the co-op disbanding, industry officials have said.

United announced that president and CEO Jerry Wright resigned on Nov. 5. Wright left to "pursue other opportunities," board chairman Carl Taylor said in a press release.

"United ... appreciates Mr. Wright's efforts on behalf of the organization," Taylor said. "We wish him all the best in future endeavors."

United, formed in 2005 as United Fresh Potato Growers of Idaho, has struggled to maintain membership at target levels.

A 12 percent increase in potato production in Idaho this year has only increased pressure on the organization to achieve its goal of stable pricing and grower profitability.

"Between our data and the numbers released by (USDA), we recognize that we're facing a serious situation this season," Taylor said. "As growers and as an organization, we must be proactive when we market this crop to look for opportunities to improve prices and to plan for the future."

Continued turmoil within the Idaho potato industry has some people thinking it's time for some spud organizations in the state to join forces.

Keith Esplin, executive director of Potato Growers of Idaho, favors consolidation of his organization, United and the Southern Idaho Potato Cooperative into one organization.

"I think it needs to happen as soon as possible," Esplin said.

Idaho has a long history of potato organizations that have come and gone. Some, like Potato Growers of Idaho, have seen their role change significantly over the years.

Potato Growers of Idaho was formed in the 1960s. For decades it negotiated processing contracts on behalf of members who sold spuds to french fry makers and dehydrators.

Bargaining problems and a lack of grower support led to the formation of Southern Idaho Potato Cooperative in 1997 as the bargaining organization in Idaho, Esplin said. Potato Growers of Idaho was left to represent growers on political issues only. Most of its other functions were turned over to the Idaho Potato Commission.

Southern Idaho Potato Cooperative encountered serious problems of its own during contract negotiations this past year, with growers eventually settling for less money than what processors had originally agreed to pay.

Esplin said the industry's recent problems all point to the need for one strong, long-lasting grower organization in the state.

A merger of spud groups could save on administrative costs and reduce what growers pay in total membership fees.

United requires each member to buy one share of common voting stock for $100, plus one share of preferred stock for every acre of potatoes they grow at $5 per share. SIPCO's annual dues are 2 cents per hundredweight.

All potato growers in Idaho pay an assessment of 12.5 cents per hundredweight to the Idaho Potato Commission regardless of what they pay in dues to other organizations.

SIPCO hasn't had any formal discussions regarding a merger with other potato organizations, but is willing to consider ideas that would benefit growers, said executive director Mike Leavitt.

"Our executive board hasn't had any talks, but we are open to looking at opportunities that would be of benefit to Idaho potato growers," he said.

It's possible that the potato commission could play a role in getting grower organizations together to discuss merger proposals.

"We will serve as a facilitator if the industry wants us to," said IPC president and CEO Frank Muir. "We have done that in the past."

The commission took over most of Potato Growers of Idaho's functions a few years ago by forming three new committees focused on marketing, agricultural affairs and research and education.

Idaho spud organizations

United Potato Growers of Idaho: www.unitedpotato.com

Idaho Potato Commission: www.idahopotato.com

Southern Idaho Potato Cooperative: 208-234-7472

Potato Growers of Idaho: http://thepgi.com

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