Red River Valley potato growers seem divided over the United Potato Growers of America.
Salt Lake City-based United Potato has had a local chapter in East Grand Forks, Minn. — the Red River Valley Fresh Potato Growers Cooperative — since 2008.
Some growers declined to comment on United and its stated goal to boost grower returns by, in some cases, controlling acreage.
Others said they could see the co-op’s value, while noting that it can fluctuate from year to year.
“I’m certainly not against United. I think they have some really good ideas, and they have some people who have put a lot of work and effort into making this thing successful,” said Paul Dolan, general manager of Grand Forks, N.D.-based Associated Potato Growers Inc.
United Potato has established its bona fides in the potato industry, although litigation against the organization likely has caused that standing to “slip a little bit,” Dolan said.
Late in 2011, United lost its claim to protection by the Capper-Volstead Act, when a U.S. district judge turned aside United Potato’s attempts to get dismissed a lawsuit filed against it a year earlier by a New York-based company that accused United Potato of “classic cartel behavior” to control potato supplies and fix prices at artificially high levels.
“I think in years past, (United Potato) probably helped, and I think a lot of people want to take credit for the better markets of previous years,” said Randy Boushey, president and chief executive officer with East Grand Forks-based A&L Potato Co.
He also said the potato industry is capable of policing itself, in terms of output, so he could understand the opposition to United Potato.
“Sometimes low markets generate less production, and (leads to) a thinning process,” he said.
The question centers on who should get credit for the cutbacks, Boushey said.
“Maybe the thinning process had already (begun), and they’d cut acres, and it was going to come back anyway, and they just called it their credit,” he said.
Markets tend to run in cycles, anyway, Boushey said.
The Red River Valley co-op had 25 growers in 2011-12, representing about half the acreage in the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, said Ted Kreis, the East Grand Forks-based association’s marketing director.
“We don’t have our 2013 membership drive completed yet, but it might be down some from 2012,” he said.
Dave Moquist, the co-op’s current chairman, said United Potato has made a significant difference.“The information we’ve gotten from United has allowed us to be able to market our potatoes in a more timely manner and just be able to get out of the marketplace what we could, so I think, over the years, it has been significant.”
Dennis Magnell, a partner in Trail, Minn.-based Peatland Reds Inc., which has announced it is leaving the Northern Plains association at the end of 2012, said his company doesn’t feel a need to belong to United Potato, either.
“They just bring us down, too,” he said.
The 2012-13 market has started with prices around $10, which growers describe as low.
One of United’s stated goals has been to help prop up returns to growers, but there’s only so much any organization can do in that realm, said Keith Groven, a salesman with Grand Forks, N.D.-based Black Gold Farms.
“You can’t control yields. There are lots of things United can’t control,” Groven said, adding that potato production is not “an exact science.”
Too many factors are involved, he said.
“The other thing that makes it difficult is the flexing of the potato deal in processing or whether they’ll go to the fresh market,” he said.
In theory, at least, United’s efforts make sense, said Chad Heimbuch, president and sales manager at Heimbuch Potatoes, Cogswell, N.D.
“Now you need to take it to the next level,” he said.