( NPC )

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — The National Potato Council — “big potato,” as some critics sometimes call it — is working hard to protect the interests of growers, Kam Quarles says.

Quarles, CEO of the NPC, spoke Aug. 30 at the Idaho Grower Shippers Association convention, outlining policy work on trade and nutrition this year. 

“Typically when folks get a little frustrated with some of the things that we’re pushing on Capitol Hill, and (wonder) why is the potato industry being so successful, they’ll start referring to us as ‘Big Potato,’” he told the 300-plus convention attendees. 

With only four staff members at the moment, the council is far from big — but it is dedicated to the mission of “standing up for potatoes on Capitol Hill,” he said.

“(Standing up for potatoes on Capitol Hill) is actually on the back of all of our new business cards, because we do not want to lose sight of what we’re doing for the for the industry,” Quarles said.

Quarles said the NPC is preparing for a leadership transition in Congress, where Republican farm leaders Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, are retiring next year.

Issues like the role of potatoes in nutrition and the industry’s use of Chlorpropham, an anti-sprouting chemical, are among the issues that NPC is engaged with.

“We spend a lot of time trying to educate folks both on Capitol Hill and the agencies about the importance of maintaining a relationship to science, so that we can receive policy decisions that are not emotional, or subjective in nature, but more objective,” he said. “So there is a real need for that type of disciplined engagement on a regular basis to make sure that we’re getting decisions that are science-based.”

Trade issues are another key focus or the NPC, Quarles said.

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement is a priority for the potato industry and the council is optimistic the deal will pass.

“If they aren’t able to get (the USMCA) through Congress, it casts a pall over all the other trade agreements that are so important to get done,” Quarles said.

While the USMCA doesn’t address phytosanitary barriers in Mexico, Quarles said the Mexican Supreme Court is expected to rule by Thanksgiving on expanding fresh market potato sales throughout the country.

“We’re looking optimistically again, at roughly the middle of next year, where the market could be fully open, not just the 26 kilometers, but the entirety of Mexico,” he said. Quarles said that if the Mexican Supreme Court does not rule in favor of expanded potato access, it would be “catastrophic” for all U.S. agriculture.

“What the Mexican Supreme Court is being asked to consider is whether or not their federal government has the ability and the knowledge to determine what agricultural products can enter their country,” he said. “If they lose that, all bets are off, and every new import that comes into Mexico can be challenged,” he said.

Agricultural Secretary Sonny Perdue has been supportive of the industry’s work to open the Mexican market, Quarles said. 

While details of a potential new agricultural trade agreement with Japan are sketchy, Quarles hopes that the U.S. will negotiate similar terms to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

“We believe that the most reasonable place for them to land is that they simply take the previously negotiated TPP tariff levels off the shelf and insert them into this new U.S.-Japan Free Trade Agreement,” he said “That would effectively mean that we will catch up to Canada, New Zealand, Australia, if they’re able to put that together.”

All countries who remained in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement have a substantial tariff advantage on U.S., he said, and those TPP tariffs are dropping to zero by 2021.

“If they can put that (trade deal with Japan) together, that would be a great outcome for us,” he said.