Industry cooperation key to progress, potato growers told

Frank Muir, executive director and CEO with the Idaho Potato Commission, discusses his organization's recent accomplishments following his talk Jan. 17 at the Eastern Idaho Potato Conference in Pocatello.

POCATELLO, Idaho — The potato industry has had better luck recently in securing federal research dollars due to improved cooperation among its national and state organizations, three industry leaders said Jan. 17 during the Eastern Idaho Potato Conference.

The speakers included National Potato Council Executive Vice President and CEO John Keeling; Pat Kole, the Idaho Potato Commission’s vice president of legal and government affairs; and Ryan Krabill, director of research with Potatoes USA.

Keeling said individual states previously approached lawmakers and submitted research requests based on their own interests. Now, leaders nationwide are reaping the rewards of focusing on what’s best for the industry as a whole, he said.

“If (lawmakers) see different messages coming from a particular industry, that just tells them the industry doesn’t know what they want,” Keeling said.

When Krabill joined Potatoes USA three years ago, he said the industry’s fractured approach to pursing federal grants wasn’t successful, and it was apparent that it needed a more “cohesive national strategy when it came to potato research.” The industry’s solution was creating the Potato Research Advisory Committee, which was a partnership of national and state potato organizations that agreed to support common projects. Before the formation of the committee, growers in eastern states prioritized funding to research a new disease in the U.S., called Dickeya, having lost entire fields, Krabill explained. But no potato projects were funded in 2016 by USDA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

In 2017, growers from all regions “coalesced around this notion that the Dickeya project is a big concern and needs to be addressed now,” and USDA approved a comprehensive, multi-year Dickeya research project.

Kole emphasized that the support of other states has also helped Idaho secure federal funds to address its unique concerns, such as a pale cyst nematode infestation in Eastern Idaho, which is under quarantine and remains the sole region in the U.S. where the destructive pest is known to exist.

“We are now over halfway done in terms of having fields that are considered eradicated and capable of being turned back into potato fields,” Kole said, adding one grower has been raising potatoes in a previously infested field. “It’s an amazing program that has got an incredible rate of good news.”

In recent years, Kole said the potato commissions of Idaho, Washington and Oregon have pooled $1.5 million annually to conduct coordinated research through the new Northwest Potato Research Consortium. Kole noted that in 1973, IPC had an active lawsuit against the Washington State Potato Commission, which soured relations until recently.

“This (consortium) would have been unheard of just a few years ago,” Kole said. “The quality of our research efforts has increased incredibly.”

From a policy standpoint, Keeling said U.S. potato growers, voicing a common message, enjoyed a recent victory in changing federal school lunch regulations that were tough on starchy vegetables.

“When I came on board 16 years ago, we didn’t have the level of cooperation with state organizations and national organizations,” Keeling said, adding cooperation has led to more “meaningful” successes.

Also during the forum, IPC President and CEO Frank Muir updated participants on recent developments within Idaho. Muir said IPC plans to begin including frozen products in its February Potato Lovers Month promotion, which includes more than 5,000 produce section displays that have thus far featured fresh and dehydrated Idaho potatoes. Muir said Lamb Weston recently launched its Grown in Idaho frozen product line, and its commercials will star farmer Mark Coombs, who is the same grower used in IPC’s advertisements.

Muir said IPC is also working with the Idaho Department of Commerce to create an economic package to entice frozen processors to build or expand facilities in Idaho.

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