Export markets continue to play an important role in the Washington and Oregon fresh potato industries.

While challenges in Mexico and other markets remain, grower-shippers and officials are optimistic about opening doors to Northwest spuds wider throughout the world.

In 2008, the Portland-based Oregon Potato Commission received a $22,000 specialty crops state block grant to expand export opportunities in Taiwan for Beaver State spud grower-shippers, said Bill Brewer, executive director.

When matching funds are added, the total will be closer to $50,000, Brewer said. The commission will use the money for a trade mission to Taiwan in October or November, he said.

Taiwan already is a good market for the Oregon potato industry, Brewer said. With this grant, he hopes to make it an even better one.

“A very high percentage of potatoes that go to Taiwan come from the Northwest,” he said.

To make that percentage even higher, the commission’s delegation will aim to convince Taiwanese chefs to use more potatoes, including new varieties they may not have tried, Brewer said.

Foodservice, and in particular high-end restaurants, will be the focus of the trade mission’s efforts, he said.
Joining Brewer on the trade mission will be Leif Benson, executive chef at the historic Timberline Lodge on Oregon’s Mount Hood; and Brian Charlton, a professor specializing in potatoes at Oregon State University.

Three and possibly four Oregon grower-shippers also will come, paying their own way, Brewer said.

The commission also hopes to expand trade opportunities in other southeastern Asia countries in the near future, Brewer said.

Of course, Oregon also has export markets considerably closer to home.

“Mexico is a very important market for us,” Brewer said.

The only problem with Mexico is U.S. shippers can’t send spuds further than 16 miles south of the border, he said.

And the prospects of expanding that area aren’t exactly bright at the moment.

“We’re hoping,” he said. “It’s part of NAFTA. Right now, there’s no date. There’s reluctance in Mexico because of their potato industry.”

The recent U.S. trade dispute with Mexico has not been easy to bear for some Washington and Oregon spud shippers.

“We’ve been doing a lot with Mexico, but that thing’s been real tough the past month,” said Tony Amstad, president of Amstad Produce Inc., Sherwood, Ore. “I hope they get that resolved in the very near future. We need it.”

In March, tariffs ranging from 10% to 45% were levied on seven fresh produce items and 82 other U.S. products, following a reversal on U.S. plans to give Mexican trucks access to U.S. highways under  a pilot program.

Following Congress' move to stop funding for the Department of Transportation's Cross Border Trucking Pilot Program, Mexico retaliated by reinstating pre-North American Free Trade Agreement tariffs.

Amstad Produce also ships some spuds to Taiwan and Canada, Amstad said.

Washington and Oregon are old hands at the fresh spud export deal, said Dave Long, chief executive officer of the Othello, Wash.-based United Co-op of Oregon & Washington.

“Washington and Oregon, as far as fresh, probably do more than any other states,” he said. “The Pacific Rim and southeastern Asia have been excellent markets.”

Still, Long said, the recession has not been limited to the shores of the U.S. — a fact that is being felt in export sales of Oregon and Washington potatoes.

“We’ve seen a dip there (in Asia) too,” he said. “Their economies aren’t any better than ours.”

Looking ahead, Long has high hopes for the day when the 16-mile export zone in Mexico is widened to take in the entire country.

“It’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when. Mexico is the No. 2 customer of Northwest apples, and I think it could be the same for potatoes.”

For Harvest Fresh Produce Inc., Othello, Wash., the focus of the company’s export program of the present lies north of the border, while a significant part of the future could lie to the south, said Allen Floyd, president.

“We do a lot in Canada now, and Mexico is a real promising market down the road,” he said.

China and Russia are among the other markets Harvest Fresh has explored on a more limited basis. And in the future, there could be others as well, Floyd said.

“We’re always looking at other markets,” he said.

Singapore, Hong Kong and Canada are among the top export markets for Potandon Produce LLC, Idaho Falls, Idaho, said Larry Sieg, general manager of the company’s Pasco, Wash., office.

Particularly with the worldwide economic convulsions of late, the volume of exports and the destinations haven’t changed much in recent years, Sieg said.

“It hasn’t really varied in the last four or five years,” he said.

Potandon exports very few Washington potatoes to Mexico, Sieg said.