Potatoes USA CEO Blair Richardson (left), thanks John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO of the National Potato Council, for his 17 years of service to the industry. Richardson presented the native Texan with a Dallas Cowboys football signed by Roger Staubach. ( Tom Karst )

DENVER — With his end-of-July retirement date rapidly approaching, John Keeling appeared at the 2019 Potatoes USA Annual Meeting for the last time as executive vice president and CEO of the National Potato Council.

Keeling briefed 100 or so National Potato Promotion Board, Potatoes USA staff and other potato industry members in a wide-ranging and informal talk on March 13. Keeling touched on potato trade with Mexico, President Trump’s trade agenda, changes to school nutrition programs, transportation and infrastructure legislation and other topics.

Trade was the hot-button topic.

Keeling said Trump must manage to craft a deal with China that helps agriculture.

“There’s a great opportunity for us with the China negotiation,” he said, “It’s about the opportunity to create market access for potatoes where market access didn’t exist before.”

More than two dozen members of Congress wrote a letter to Trump administration trade officials advocating for inclusion of potatoes in a possible deal.

“We have been working very, very hard to get our message out to the administration,” he said. “We’re very hopeful that we will have a what could be a major breakthrough, and this is something that we’ve been working on for about 20 years.”

Keeling also stressed the importance of the U.S. signing a bilateral trade agreement with Japan. Japan already has trade deals with the European Union and Australia, so without a trade deal the U.S. is likely to lose market share, he said.

“What we would love to see is for the president pick up the pieces of the Trans Pacific Partnership that have already been negotiated and really inject those into the Japanese discussion,” Keeling said.

The National Potato Council has been working for years in Mexican courts to expand U.S. potato market access in Mexico, and Keeling said the Mexican Supreme Court has agreed to take up the case sometime this year.

In other news, Keeling said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to publish a guidance document soon that will make it easier for school foodservice officials to serve potatoes at school breakfasts.

Keeling urged potato industry leaders to continue to build and grow relationships between state and national potato groups.

After his presentation, Potatoes USA CEO Blair Richardson thanked Keeling for his 17 years of service to the industry and presented the native Texan with a Dallas Cowboys football signed by Roger Staubach.

“He has led us through a lot of challenges, a lot of issues and he has helped bring this industry together in many ways over the years; that’s something that not everyone in his position is capable of doing,” Richardson said.

“You have been the ideal quarterback for this industry over the years,” he told Keeling.