Idaho seed potato growers see opportunity in Algeria

An Algerian farmer mans a two-row potato planter during a field visit as part of a tour of the country's agricultural production that included Idaho seed potato growers. The Idaho growers are working to help Algeria increase its own potato production and hope to supply much of the seed toward that effort.

ST. ANTHONY, Idaho — Idaho seed potato farmers are helping Algeria to improve its agricultural production methods, hoping their efforts will open a large, new export market.

The North African nation, located along the Mediterranean Coast, imported virtually all of its food as recently as the early 1990s but has been working lately to become self sufficient, explained St. Anthony seed grower Dirk Parkinson.

Parkinson and Keith Esplin, both with U.S. Seed, a seed potato cooperative specializing in exports, toured Algeria’s agricultural industry Feb. 28-March 9.

The trip, sponsored by the U.S.-Algeria Business Council, also included Dan Piquet, with Heyburn, Idaho-based Double L Manufacturing, and representatives from the Texas cattle industry and California alfalfa and forage seed industry.

Algeria — home to 39.21 million people and about 920,000 square miles of land — is 90 percent desert, but Esplin explained the climate is similar to California and can support a wide variety of crops. The nation’s growers can raise two potato crops in a single season, breaking only during the two hottest months of summer.

Parkinson said the Algerian government, which has wealth from energy exports, has prioritized agriculture and is offering its growers grants and interest-free loans. Algeria has set a goal of increasing its potato production by 50 percent during the next five years and is looking to U.S. varieties, equipment and production methods to help them improve, Parkinson said.

Parkinson offered suggestions to improve Algeria’s farming efficiency, such as applying liquid fertilizer in bands rather than broadcasting dry fertilizer.

“The government is working pretty hard at increasing their production,” Parkinson said. “So far, they’ve been really receptive about our ideas.”

Algeria, which has no infrastructure for producing chips and frozen or dehydrated potato products, is also interested in adding processing capabilities.

Algeria imports about 140,000 tons of potato seed per year from Europe. Parkinson said the long process of addressing phytosanitary concerns and implementing trade regulations is underway.

“Algeria right now for potato products is pretty much an untapped market,” he said.

Esplin said most of the farms he saw in Algeria had small operations, and many still used 1920s-era technology. But he saw many signs that the country is rapidly catching up with the times, including “new apartment buildings and lots of construction going on everywhere we went.”

“They were interested in our technology, and the government is behind them and supportive of expanding irrigation,” Esplin said.

Piquet said Double L also saw ample potential in Algeria.

“We really can’t speak to the specifics of our business plan in Algeria, but I can tell you that the trip was very successful,” Piquet said. “We were really impressed with the drive that the government of Algeria has to develop a relationship with U.S. suppliers.”

Officials from Algeria toured agricultural production in Texas and California in January and are planning an April trip to explore Idaho potato country. Esplin has also suggested that the Idaho State Department of Agriculture host an Algerian trade team to learn about other sectors of Idaho’s agricultural economy.

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