This year’s abundant production of potatoes has growers and shippers in the U.S. seeking new markets for the oversupply of table stock potatoes.
One market that has shown limited success due to its limited access has been Mexico.
At press time bilateral negotiations continued between the U.S. and Mexico on potatoes and a number of other agricultural issues. Growers and shippers are patiently waiting for the day when table stock potatoes can be transported beyond the current 26-kilometer (16.25 miles) zone in Mexico.
Current negotiations were put on hold while Mexico underwent a change of leadership with Enrique Pena Nieto assuming the presidency on Dec. 1, 2012.
One company that has enjoyed moderate success shipping fresh potatoes and onions into the 26 km zone in Mexico during the past five years is Eagle Eye Produce.
The company, based in Idaho Falls, Idaho, received the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service 2011 Exporter of the Year award from the Agricultural Trade Office in Monterrey, Mexico for its marketing campaign resulting in increased yellow onion and fresh potato exports to Mexico.
Lance Poole, vice president of sales for the potato and onion division for Eagle Eye Produce, said that over the past four years their volume of potatoes and onions exported to Mexico has increased over 100 percent.
Poole said that when Eagle Eye first started shipping to Mexico five years ago, local consumers preferred a white-skin potato to the russet by a margin of 9 to 1, but now the preferred potato in the 26 km border zone is the russet, brown-skin potato.
“In 2009 we probably had our biggest year out of Idaho shipping to Mexico,” Poole said, “but the last two years, because the market has been so much higher, growers lost interest in the Mexico market. Now the supply is in abundance, they’re interested again.”
Full access to Mexico would open a market of more than 113 million consumers to U.S. potatoes but access to Mexico does not come without regulatory measures.
“Mexico requires Idaho to sample the soil prior to planting and certify that the ground is nematode free,” Poole said. “That is the only way you can ship potatoes that are then harvested in the fall to Mexico.”
Alejandro Taylor, Eagle Eye Produce export sales manager, said that the soil samples are a very labor-intensive process. Samples, about the size of a teaspoon, are taken every two to three steps in a field and then placed in a bag, labeled and tested.
Poole said that other states are not required to perform the pre-planting test but they are required to test potatoes for nematodes.
Poole and Taylor caution growers and shippers to take time to get to know both the process for export and the business and consumer culture of Mexico.
“As far as Idaho, we would like growers to become educated on the process, what is required of them,” Poole said. “It’s really safer than they think.”
According to Poole the biggest challenge right now is the lack of warehouse distribution centers in the 26 km zone. With the elimination of the 26 km zone deliveries could then be made anywhere in the country.
“The retailers are anxiously waiting because they know if we can deliver direct to the warehouses and they can do the distribution it will lower the price to the consumer dramatically,” Poole said.
Taylor advises shippers to be diligent in meeting all phytosanitary regulations.
“The protocol in Mexico is very strict.” Taylor said, “If you fail one of the items the protocol is requesting you could have a lot of issues on the border.”
“If your phytos don’t match exactly, or if your seals are broken by trucks, or if there’s more dirt on the potatoes than the inspector thinks there should be, it’s a very challenging process,” Poole said, explaining in greater detail Taylor’s warning.
Poole believes the day will come when the bilateral negotiations will successfully conclude.
“I truly believe at this point that it’s not a matter of if, it’s just a matter of when,” Poole said. “Education is the biggest thing we’d like to promote to any grower or shipper, understanding what is required of them. This will be a big market.”
By Bill Schaefer