When it comes to exporting onions and potatoes, marketing agents say there are plenty of challenges for each. On the potato side, Mexico remains a difficult market to penetrate. For onions, storage varieties continue to dominate export sales.
Sweet onions have had only limited success in export markets, marketers note.
“Here in south Texas, because we’re shipping sweet onion in March through June, we’ve attempted to export to England,” said Don Ed Holmes, owner of The Onion House LLC, Weslaco, Texas. “We sent them to Holland one year. It’s been not much success. These sweet onions don’t have enough shelf life to take a boat ride across the onions.”
A lot of storage onions are shipped out of the Pacific Northwest, Holmes said.
“The winter onions, I guess right now. Washington and Oregon ship a lot to the Pacific Rim,” he said. “That’s a hard onion and lends itself real well to export. Especially in Washington, they’ve gotten real aggressive chasing that Pacific Rim business.”
Vidalia onions are trying to find their way — with some success — into overseas markets.
“We’ve dabbled in that just a bit,” said Richard Pazderski, sales director for Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, Ga.
“A bit” seems plenty, due to the product’s limited shelf life, Pazderski said, concurring with Holmes.
“Most exported onions are yellow onions, your basic cooking onion,” Pazderski said. “And we’ve got a great market here in the states, anyway.”
For standard storage onions, however, the upcoming season should be a good one, said John Vlahandreas, national onion sales director of national onion sales for Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC.
“I think export is going to be decent this year,” he said. “I think there was an early typhoon in Taiwan that hurt them a little bit. They had heavy rains north of Tokyo. Those guys buy from other areas, but those guys don’t have enough so that’s going to force them over here.”
For potatoes, Mexico and its 26-kilometer barrier against U.S. fresh potatoes, remains nettlesome to U.S. shippers and marketers.
“We’re still trying to get the trucking ban lifted on the Mexican border,” said Karen Bonaudi, director of public affairs for the Washington State Potato Committee, Moses Lake. “We’re losing market share there to Canada.”
Tim O’Connor, chief executive officer of the Denver-based U.S. Potato Board, says he wishes he “had an answer” to the problem with Mexico.
“We haven’t found the trigger point yet,” O’Connor said. “But we have seen exports grow nicely. We’ve’ had two years in a row of 15% of the crop being exported.”
Politics are the root of the Mexico situation, O’Connor said, noting U.S. potatoes also can’t get into mainland China.
“We can’t get fresh potatoes in. We’re working on that one, but we can’t do that,” he said. “When governments are reluctant to negotiate market access, it takes a long time.”
India also presents obstacles because of European competition and a business model geared toward small-scale shipments to “mom-and-pop” receivers, O’Connor said.
Nobody is giving up on China’s consumer market, though, said Bill Brewer, executive director of Oregon Potato Commission, Portland.
“The industry was involved this summer with some trade discussions that APHIS was having in China to focus on trying to export fresh potatoes into China, which did not happen. We didn’t make any headway this year, but it’s still on our list of places we’d like to go,” he said.
Some shippers of potatoes and onions, such as the Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Wada Farms Marketing Group, prefer to focus on domestic business.
“There’s some (export potential), but the inspection requirements are so tough. That’s kind of a hot potato,” said Kevin Stanger, Wada Farms’ vice president of sales and marketing. “They do it one minute, and the next minute they change things.”
Ted Kreis, marketing director of the Northern Plains Potato Growers, East Grand Forks, Minn., said export business is limited.
“There’s very little,” he said. “We are so landlocked. Red potatoes don’t ship over long distances. It’s never been a big deal for us. We’d like to see more potatoes go into Canada. There are some going both ways.”