NPC’s LaJoie: When the potato industry is healthy, America is better off
It is hard to believe that sitting here 12 months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can be thankful that the U.S. potato industry, in general, and the National Potato Council, as an organization, is in the process of emerging relatively healthy.
When 2020 NPC President Britt Raybould passed the gavel to me in February, I reflected on how differently last year could have turned out and how grateful I was for her leadership and the work of the NPC staff in managing our way through this crisis.
Last spring and summer, the U.S. potato industry was reeling from a crash in demand like nothing we’ve ever seen. NPC and our state partners estimated that more than 70% of the potato industry was directly impacted by the government-mandated shutdowns and food service restrictions. The staggering oversupply of potatoes was estimated at 1.5 billion pounds, which could fill the U.S. Capitol Building 14 times over.
With anywhere between $750 million and $1.3 billion in potatoes and potato products clogged up in the pipeline, NPC and our state potato organization partners went to work, appealing to USDA and members of Congress for support and direct relief. And they came through.
During the NPC Annual Meeting, we reported the total amount of federal relief delivered to the potato industry since the crisis began, and the overall numbers were impressive.
- In May, USDA announced $50 million in surplus potato purchases, which was largest of all the COVID-related specialty crop purchases and the largest surplus potato purchase in history.
- Potato growers were delivered $46.5 million in direct relief under the first Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP).
- The second CFAP delivered even more relief, at around 2.5 times more than the initial program.
- Finally, there was substantial potato participation in USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program.
All told, and not counting PPP loans, NPC and our state partners helped deliver around $250 million in federal government support to the potato industry since the crisis began.
Even in a town where a billion dollars is considered a rounding error, these funds didn’t just fall out of the sky. Our efforts in Washington, D.C. — with the help of our supporters in Congress — delivered the single largest federal support for potatoes in our nation’s history.
The industry’s consistent, relentless focus and coordinated response that resulted in $250 million in pandemic relief will serve as a model as we move forward as we take on the policy challenges facing NPC and the industry as a whole.
For example, the return of USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack raises questions about how potatoes will be treated in federal nutrition programs during President Biden’s term. The scars we earned during the battles over potatoes in WIC and school meal programs are still fresh; however, we are in a much better place than we were a decade ago. Through the work of NPC and Potatoes USA, we have invested heavily in nutrition science to better understand the nature of potatoes. That rigorous peer-reviewed science reinforces our beliefs that nutrient-rich, cost-efficient potatoes have a rightful place with other vegetables in all federal feeding programs.
Whether its nutrition, trade, labor or transportation, we’ll continue to fight to ensure that potatoes have a seat at the table whenever decision-makers are considering rules that could impact our industry or our ability to farm.
The U.S. potato industry not only puts food on dinner tables, it generates tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in support of rural communities all across the nation. When the potato industry is healthy, America is better off. Through the efforts of NPC and our state potato organizations last year, we are on a better footing today than we could have imagined during the pandemic’s darkest times. We’ll take that consistent, relentless focus in addressing tomorrow’s policy challenges as the nation continues to open up and people get back to work.
— Dominic LaJoie is a partner at LaJoie Growers LLC in Aroostook County, Maine. For more on the operation, check out Spudman’s 2020 feature story.