Column: Detailing state of the potato industry amid COVID
As organizations adapt to the current COVID-19 realities, on June 25 the National Potato Council tried something new by holding our first-ever virtual summer meeting. Although we were disappointed we couldn’t get together this year in Boise, the virtual format did have its advantages in that it opened up the meeting to growers and industry members who would normally not have the flexibility of traveling to our meeting.
The virtual nature of the meeting also allowed us to broadcast live from our Facebook page, where dozens of viewers tuned in to watch the “State of the Industry and COVID-19 Response” presentations by NPC leadership and our partners in the industry.
As part of the presentation, I took a few minutes to reflect on the past year with a great team here in D.C.
A year ago, we were at Larry Alsum’s summer meeting in Wisconsin. It was my first meeting taking up the responsibilities of CEO, joined by new staff member Mike Wenkel and great long-time colleagues Hollee Alexander and Hillary Hutchins. That was a great meeting and set the stage for a number of new ideas and programs for NPC.
One of the most visible was the record-breaking Potato Expo in Las Vegas. Hollee and the whole team had a lot to be proud of with the revamped program, fantastic member engagement, and a lot of momentum starting 2020.
During the meeting, we kicked off “The Eye on Potatoes” podcast with our well-known returning member of the team, Mark Szymanski. More than 2,500 downloads later, that podcast has showcased great guests and conversations from industry leaders, political pundits, and two key members of Congress.
In January the vision and foresight of another group of leaders became a reality as we launched the Potato Leadership, Education, and Advancement Foundation, or Potato LEAF. As the industry’s new public charity to fund leadership development activities for our next generation of leaders, the foundation launched with the initial goal of establishing a $2 million Legacy Fund. During the Summer Meeting, we were proud to announce that to-date we have pledges and contributions of more than $1.6 million to Potato LEAF.
After Potato Expo, just six weeks later we gathered in Washington for the 2020 Potato D.C. Fly-In, and made the most of our “Standing Up for Potatoes on Capitol Hill” mission statement. During the week we hosted an ag labor reform press conference on the steps of the Capitol Building and were joined by five members of Congress and several industry partners.
During it all, we were in the middle of one of the strongest few months for trade wins in memory. USMCA, the Japan Agreement, and China Phase One all happened in the first quarter of the year. Overall, it was the most successful Fly-In and start to a year that I have been part of during my years with NPC.
Little did we know that would be one of the last public events held in D.C. Just 10 days after the Fly-In, everyone’s world changed dramatically as the country began shutting down. Congress immediately jumped into action, passing a $2 trillion stimulus bill.
Even before the President signed that bill, NPC and the state organizations sat down together to figure out a relief plan for the industry. That began a series of at-least weekly strategy sessions between all your state managers and the NPC staff.
The initial product was a sound one and included two parts:
- First: In the absence of consumer demand due to a government shutdown, we needed to push the government to temporarily become our customer and clear out the growing oversupply.
- Second: USDA needed to set up a meaningful direct payment program for the industry to provide relief to impacted growers.
On the first piece, USDA responded by providing us with the largest surplus commodity purchase in our industry’s history, with a $50 million purchase of potatoes.
The second piece has been more difficult. USDA’s first attempt at a direct payment program has not delivered for the specialty crop industry and certainly not for potatoes. Currently, only 2% of that funding has gone to specialty crops and it has proven extremely difficult for potato growers to even qualify to sign up.
In June, NPC and the state potato organizations filed comments on USDA’s CFAP program arguing the department improperly assessed the price impact on potatoes and offering remedies that would ensure the heavily impacted potato industry is provided with fair and equitable access to program funds.
Optimistically, I believe USDA recognizes the errors that were made for specialty crops in designing this program. Perhaps more importantly, the data in those comments provides a compelling case for Congress to act in providing more funding and direction to USDA in getting relief to our industry.
All of your state organizations, as well as key industry players have been an example of strong collaboration during this crisis. Each of us is committed to the overall goal of getting necessary relief to impacted growers, and even though the first half of 2020 wasn’t what we anticipated, rest assured your staff at the National Potato Council is working to get this right for this great industry.
— Kam Quarles is the chief executive officer for the National Potato Council. He is based in Washington, D.C.