Oregon Potato Commission CEO Bill Brewer

Bill Brewer, Oregon Potato Commission CEO,

told the Washington-Oregon Potato Conference in Kennewick, Wash., that industry leaders hope negotiations will open China to fresh potatoes.

KENNEWICK, Wash. — Industry leaders say they hope to open new doors for exporting fresh U.S. potatoes to China.

“We believe we’re maybe in the final stages of trying to open up the Chinese fresh market,” said Bill Brewer, president and CEO of the Oregon Potato Commission.

A deal with China last summer would have allowed the country to buy more U.S. agricultural products, said John Keeling, CEO of the National Potato Council. That deal was scrapped when President Donald Trump added more tariffs to Chinese products.

The administration is negotiating with the Chinese to put the deal back together by March 1, Keeling said.

“How the president is able to pull off this China deal is huge in terms of how his support will be in the heartland, where the people really getting hurt by this — corn and soybean farmers — are, and how we will be going forward in terms of trade for China,” Keeling said.

Keeling didn’t estimate a likelihood of the deal, but said it presents “an incredible opportunity” for potatoes.

“We’ve been working on this for 20 years,” said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington Potato Commission. “We’re the number one ag priority in the U.S. Trade Representative’s office ... so we’ve got a good shot at getting in there, we hope.”

If an agreement is completed, Brewer said, it would likely go into effect for the 2020 crop year.

“I do know it’s being discussed right now, that high-level trade,” he said.

China is the largest producer of potatoes in the world, primarily using the crop for chips. Exporting even a small amount of fresh table stock potatoes to China “could be a big deal for all of our growers,” Brewer said.

“There’s so many people there, and they do have a big push in China to move more of their population to potato instead of rice,” he said. The population of China is 1.4 billion.

China primarily buys U.S. french fries and dehydrated products. The only state that can currently sell fresh potatoes to China is Alaska, which can send seed potatoes, Brewer said.

“They recognize that we have high-quality potatoes,” he said. “They chip a lot of potatoes in China, and they need our quality and production. So there’s a demand if we can just get access.”

Demand would likely be slow at first, and then ramp up, Brewer said. “There’s a lot of potential,” he said.

The Potato Council is working with all states to get letters to Trump, encouraging him to include fresh potato access to China as part of the final deal, Keeling said.

“Will it happen? I don’t know,” he said. “But I know this: We’re going to do everything we can in terms of applying political pressure and pressure from the grassroots at the president’s level and the U.S. trade representative’s level to get that done.”

Field Reporter, Spokane

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