From Beijing to Monterrey, Mexico, or even closer to home in Aberdeen, Idaho, United States Potato Board (USPB) member Ritchey Toevs champions market development for U.S. potatoes and potato products. A member of the USPB's international marketing administrative committee, Toevs has also served on the National Potato Council (NPC) board of directors and represented the interests of the potato industry before Congressional committees, testifying on behalf of growers in order to improve trade relations and market access. He is also active on the Idaho Potato Commission on the research and education committee.
Toevs' family arrived in Aberdeen, in the northern end of the Pleasant Valley of southeast, in the early 1900s. His grandfather and great uncles worked to finish the canal system that diverted water from the Snake River onto the productive desert soils. His T6 Farms, a partnership, produces approximately 1,150 acres of potatoes and is located just southwest of the town.
For more than 30 years Toevs has been growing potatoes, since completing a bachelor's degree in agriculture science at the University of Idaho in Moscow. He is a process grower for Simplot and Lamb Weston and also produces seed for farm use, and for sale to Con-Agra Lamb-Weston and Basic American Foods.
He grows Russet Burbank, Ranger, Umatilla Russet and Dark Red Norland for processing, in addition to Yukon Gold, Ranger, Alturas and Yukon Gem being grown for seed. His rotation crop is primarily alfalfa but includes wheat, sugar snap peas, sweet corn and sugar beets.
Today's industry benefits from a wide array of tools and resources, and Toevs is particularly mindful about the new and emerging technologies that facilitate producing high quality crops.
"I continue to be amazed and appreciative with the capabilities and opportunities available for growers," Toevs said. "GPS, variable rate fertilizers and GIS/field mapping all help growers in effectively managing their farm resources. Today, almost every field looks like a big garden. Yields were very good because of mild summer temperatures and because growers did an excellent job farming this past year despite getting a slow start this past spring."
One resource Toevs has been working with is the production of compost to augment his farm's fertilizer program. Though compost cannot provide 100 percent of plant nutrition necessary to grow a crop, composts can be an effective and beneficial supplement to most fertilizer programs.
"It won't be far off that we will be blending micronutrients into our compost so we can match individual field needs," Toevs said. "As I am doing more grid sampling and seeing more production results, I am convinced we can continue to push yields along a pretty steep curve."
"As growers, we are getting further removed from our consumers, not just in miles but also in generations, and so it can be difficult for us to communicate how our industry serves their food and fiber needs," Toevs said. "We need to consider their needs and address their concerns and issues. We need to continue to work to minimize our ecological footprint and be sustainable in our approach to food production. We should be quick to demonstrate we are socially conscious to our consumers and aware of our responsibilities of protecting the environment while delivering nutritious, high quality food."
Toevs has been a USPB member for 10 years. During this time, he has witnessed firsthand the efforts of international marketing in gaining access to Japan and anticipates similar successes with other markets in Central America and Asia. He has participated on trade missions with Susan Weller, USPB international marketing manager, to Mexico, and with John Toaspern,
USPB international marketing vice president, to China and Russia.
While serving on NPC, Toevs participated with other industry members in resolving trade issues involving frozen fry imports from processing facilities in Canada.
"Market development was crucial to the growth of our industry through the mid 1990's," he said. "But in 1997, though we were effective in developing new markets in Asia we were actually becoming net importers of frozen product. This was due to processor investment in new facilities in Canada, to benefit monetarily from favorable exchange rates."
Toevs, along with other growers, worked with members of Congress in supporting the U.S. process industry.
"I am impressed with the industry's leadership in market access and development efforts," Toevs said. "USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), USPB, industry and state organizations are working together to open markets, build infrastructure, and promote American products. FAS funds continue to be an important resource in developing markets. These funds augment grower dollars in creating marketing opportunities for U.S.-based process, seed and fresh growers."
Today, potatoes make an impressive contribution to total dollar value of U.S. agricultural exports. Potatoes are primarily exported in a value added form so our industry is creating many additional jobs for Americans off the farm.
"We can't afford to back off in our attention to market access and development," Toevs said. "Currently, because of pest concerns or disease issues there are times when the USPB can only provide market access to a few states or growing regions. The challenge remains to ensure that all industry members can benefit from these opportunities."
Toevs said that the USPB is challenged to work with and include all of the members of the industry, as outlined in its Long Range Plan. It is difficult to represent all of the different sectors and not exclude others.
"Balancing the needs of each industry segment with the need to represent all growers will continue to be a challenge with the USPB's limited budget," he said. "The USPB has a specific role in the industry, and as grower leaders, we won't always be in a position to approve market assistance to any one segment, which may become limiting to the needs of the remaining sectors. What I think we all can agree on is we need to continue to make sure we keep putting our money in those programs showing the best return-on-investment."
Toevs commends the USPB's efforts working with private voluntary organizations (PVOs) in developing uses for U.S. dehydrated potatoes in international food aid programs. Recently, he represented the industry during a reverse trade mission to Idaho Falls, Idah, where international PVO representatives learned of the versatility and possible uses dehy could fulfill in ethnic and cultural food aid settings.
"International feeding programs are big business and potatoes are a great fit to provide carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals in a nonperishable form with little cooking energy required for preparation at point-of-use," he said. "All that, and they taste good."
"The United States is leading the world in producing high quality dehydrated potato products, and these are well applied in international food-aid settings," Toevs said. "But I think we should also look at dehydrated potato products and their fit in fulfilling the needs of domestic food banks and homeless shelters."
For industry members not acquainted with the mission of the USPB, Toevs notes four roles the organization fulfills:
- Continuing to promote the nutrition, convenience and value of U.S. potatoes and potato products
- Maintaining awareness about food safety and being proactive in responding to issues affecting potatoes and potato products by having current data and resources available to provide factual information to consumers and media.
- Continuing to work on opening and expanding markets for U.S. potatoes and potato products
- The USPB is able to augment the $3.2 million in grower dollars budgeted to international marketing with over $6 million in Market Access Program and other funds from the FAS at USDA.
Whatever the organization or his role, Toevs is an effective and valued team player who works for the interest of the US potato industry.
"It is an honor to work in an industry where competitors are often close neighbors and best friends," he said. "With people who give thanks for food because they know there is hunger and in a country which holds freedom close because of the millions of oppressed elsewhere."
—By David Fairbourn, USPB manager, industry communications & policy