Potato Board allocates funds to redress port slowdown damage

Container terminal operations at the Port of Portland, pictured in this Capital Press file photo, and other facilities on the West Coast have suffered from serious congestion that stymied agricultural exports.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The U.S. Potato Board has approved $500,000 in special funding to work with foreign markets that lost potato product shipments during the recent West Coast port labor slowdown.

The board voted to move $300,000 from reserves to its international marketing budget. USPB also authorized staff to redirect $50,000 in board funds and $150,000 from the Foreign Agricultural Service’s Market Access Program from programs promoting frozen and dehydrated potato products toward the market restoration effort. The funding will be allowed to carry over into the new fiscal year that begins in July.

USPB Chief Marketing Officer John Toaspern said U.S. potato exports were down $34 million from October through December, compared with the same time period in 2013. USPB is awaiting additional estimates for losses spanning from January into March.

“It wasn’t just that we lost sales. It was the fact that customers had to switch to product from other sources or else not have anything to sell,” Toaspern said. “Now you have customers that were buying U.S. that switched to Canada, Europe or China.”

Toaspern said in many cases, customers signed multi-month contracts with new suppliers. He’s optimistic lost customers will return with time, due to the high quality of U.S. potatoes and potato products.

“Our international representatives are currently surveying all of the major customers in their markets to find out who has switched so that we can then know who to target with these additional funds,” Toaspern said. “We’re still in the investigative stage in terms of our representatives finding out what the situation is.”

Toaspern said funding will be used to ramp up promotional support of foreign restaurants, especially in Asia, that use U.S. potato products and received spoiled or reduced shipments due to the port situation. Other assistance will focus on restaurant staff training and cost-sharing on in-store promotions and point-of-sale materials.

Though West Coast ports were shipping about half of their usual volume during the slowdown, Toaspern said U.S. potato exports through December were down just 15 percent from the previous year. The figure tells Toaspern that shippers moved their product to other ports — and in a few cases, delivered it by air.

Frank Muir, president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission, said his organization emphasized maintaining contact with its customers throughout the slowdown. He said IPC placed special attention on a new customer in Taiwan that received none of the fresh potatoes it had ordered.

“The key is communication and partnership, particularly with those customers in Asia,” Muir said.

Ashton, Idaho, seed grower Clen Atchley said he and other National Potato Council growers who recently flew to Washington, D.C., spoke with lawmakers about the need to avoid future port labor problems.

Dan Hargraves, executive director with Southern Idaho Potato Cooperative, doubts the dispute will clog supply lines in 2015 with excessive carry-over products. Hargraves said major processors curbed their production to match their inability to export.

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