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Idaho Co-op Gathers Support

Idaho’s new fresh potato cooperative is going strong.

United Fresh Potato Growers of Idaho (United) now has membership agreements from growers who represent more than 80 percent of all fresh potato acreage in the state.

And only a couple months after forming, the group has already helped to stabilize prices growers receive for their fresh potatoes, said David Beesley, United’s secretary.

“If you take a look at the market over the last three weeks, we’ve stabilized and advanced it,” Beesley said. “We have to be aware that the situation we’ve had just can’t continue – a truly weak job of marketing potatoes in Idaho and nationwide.”

The cooperative represents more than 80 percent of all fresh potatoes grown in Idaho and 25 percent of the nation’s fresh-market potatoes.

Membership response so far has been “moving ahead rapidly but is a moving target,” Beesley said. Though he had no exact membership numbers to report, Beesley said membership applications keep coming in via mail and through the different directors.

Throughout Idaho, there are eight different districts set up for United. And within each of those districts, there are boards and officers organized the same way as the state’s United boards.

“In Idaho, we’ve formed our districts,” Beesley said. “We’re still cleaning up some of that work. (Nov. 30) we formed a district for seed growers who are going to join under the same terms as fresh growers.”

Each Wednesday, representatives from each of the eight districts meet with members of United’s board to discuss pricing issues. And each Wednesday afternoon, this group releases a price advisory for Norkotahs and Burbanks. This advisory goes to all of the members, who then forward it on to their sales desks.

“These are minimum pricing guidelines for the coming week and outlook for two weeks beyond that,” Beesley said.

The advisories also include a matrix where growers can select the quality of their crop to see what their returns would be.

“With consignment sales being almost the major mode of operation in Idaho, one of the problems we’ve had – before United – is growers wouldn’t have a very firm idea on what potatoes were returning almost 30 days after they were gone, so it was almost impossible for growers to make sound decisions,” he said. “We’re working to improve communication so growers know exactly what they’re selling for and how they’ll be affected by what we do.”

While they are seeing immediate results in stabilizing prices, Beesley said all of United’s plans are long-term.

“We are going to change the potato industry in the United States,” he said. “It was going to change one way or another. Either we would force so many people out of business that it would change for the worse. With this stabilization, we bring rational pricing in line.”

United is working with more than just the fresh-market growers. The group has arrangements to work with the frozen and processing potato industries of Idaho as well.

“We’ve started conversations with dehydrators and fryers in Idaho to explore what we can do to enhance their business and guarantee them a more stable supply,” Beesley said. “Perhaps we can remove any misinformation they have about United being a threat to their industry.”

Forming these individual districts under the United umbrella will allow the group to put decisions in the hands of growers.

“We’re going to take this decision making as far grassroots as possible so it truly is a grower organization,” Beesley said.

And Idaho growers aren’t the only ones getting involved. Beesley said United already has made contacts with growers in other states. Colorado and Wisconsin growers have shown interest in forming their own groups that would work cooperatively with United. And growers in the Klamath Basin, on the border between Oregon and California, already have formed United Fresh Potato Growers of the Klamath Basin. Representatives from United will be traveling during the next few weeks to meet with different state groups to address their questions about forming fresh potato groups in their states.

“The fact that they want us to come over and aid them in the effort is significant,” Beesley said. “I think nationwide the movement is moving probably faster than we could have hoped – it’s pretty aggressive.”

Beesley cited the choice of next-generation growers to leave farms as one reason new pricing standards need to be enacted.

“We’ve had a situation clear across the United States, and particularly in Idaho, in that young people are choosing to leave farms because there was no future,” he said. “Somehow we have to replace that hope for the future in young farmers to keep this a viable industry.”

The next steps in United’s plans include continuing to work on the pricing structure and working with other sectors of Idaho’s potato industry – as well as with other states.

“The possibilities after we embarked on this is absolutely exciting when you start thinking about what can be accomplished – mostly in stabilizing the market,” Beesley said. “We have had a poorly organized and poorly formatted way of marketing, and that’s the part that needs to change. Our last wish would be to alienate any of our customers; we have to, and want to, work with these people and grow the potato industry nationwide.”

For more information on United, visit http://www.unitedpotato.com
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Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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