Pasco farmer says U.S. potato industry is focused on the future

By Jared Balcom

Despite all the changes the nation has experienced over the two-plus years of this pandemic, the U.S. potato industry remains as committed as ever to fighting for federal policies that protect our businesses, our families and the communities we support. 

Years ago, when I first attended the potato industry’s leadership development course as a young grower and business owner, it was hard to envision myself as the president of our national trade association one day.

However, when I was passed the gavel and took over as the National Potato Council’s 2022 president in February, I reflected on the hard work that got us here and my desire to use the momentum we have built – despite a global pandemic – to leave NPC and the entire industry in a stronger position than any of us could have anticipated. 

Whether it is in the area of trade, nutritional regulations, environmental policies or labor rules, we have seen firsthand what we can do as an industry when we stand together. 

As challenging as it was to operate in a mostly virtual environment, I’m pleased to report that we delivered tremendous results for our industry in 2021.  

Based on the final data, we now know that through the work of NPC and our state partners over $350 million in federal assistance was provided to support the potato industry throughout the pandemic.

Through programs like the Coronavirus Food Assistance Programs, surplus potato purchases by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, substantial potato participation in the Farmers to Families Food Box programs and other federal programs, we were able to deliver the largest federal disaster support ever provided to the potato industry.

Now, as the country – and the world – reopens, we are hoping we can return to advocating for a proactive policy agenda that is fighting for a brighter tomorrow. 

Easing bottlenecks

The U.S. potato industry is dependent upon an efficient transportation system in moving product from the farm through the supply chain to the end consumer. Unfortunately, current supply chain disruptions are creating severe shortages of vital inputs for potato production and inflating prices for those fortunate producers who can secure supply. 

NPC has identified several specific regulatory and legislative actions that could assist in relieving some of the current bottlenecks that are severely impacting producers, including removing burdens on truck drivers and easing regulatory impediments on shippers.  

Workforce challenges

Anyone in the specialty crop industry is aware of the challenges of finding labor to plant and harvest crops.

To address the crisis, last year the U.S. House of Representatives passed the NPC-supported bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside – the second time it has passed the bill during consecutive sessions of Congress.

NPC and our partners in the Agriculture Workforce Coalition are now encouraging the Senate to improve upon that bill and create the opportunity to secure a long-term fix to this crisis. 

Fighting for fair trade 

As the former NPC vice president of trade affairs, I’ve spent years immersed in the details of our country’s trade agreements – including the recently adopted U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) – that particularly benefits growers from the Pacific Northwest.

However, one longstanding dispute with a trade partner has preoccupied the industry for literally decades. If you’ve been following the news, you know that country is Mexico, which has all but closed its borders to U.S. fresh potatoes for the past 25 years, despite trade pledges to the contrary. 

However, in early April 2022, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack met with Mexico Secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development Victor Villalobos in Mexico to discuss their shared priorities, including agriculture trade.

Most notably for the U.S. potato industry, the secretaries jointly announced the two countries had concluded all necessary plant health protocols and the entire Mexican market opened in May 2022 for all U.S. table stock and chipping potatoes. 

We can finally realize the full potential of this expanded market. All told, the U.S. potato industry estimates that access to the entire country for fresh U.S. potatoes could provide a market potential of $150 million per year in five years. This would increase global fresh potato exports by over 10% and support thousands of direct and indirect American jobs in the process. 

Whether it’s trade, legislation, or nutritional programs, NPC and the entire U.S. potato industry continue to advocate for policies that will set the stage for a strong and prosperous future for our growers and those up and down the potato supply chain.

To find out more about how the grower-led National Potato Council is fighting for policies that protect the long-term health of our industry, go to: nationalpotatocouncil.org.

Jared Balcom is the 2022 president of the National Potato Council and owner of Balcom and Moe Inc. of Pasco.

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