February 2022
Trade Win: US fresh potato shippers inching close to full access of Mexico By Zeke Jennings

Kam Quarles has spent much of January on the road, giving updates at some of the biggest industry conferences that take place each winter.

As National Potato Council chief executive officer, Quarles plays the most significant part for the U.S. potato industry when it comes to things like international trade and federal regulations. (Quarles shared some big news recently when it comes to U.S. fresh potato exports to Mexico, as you’ll read below.)

Kam Quarles, CEO of the National Potato Council, discusses the pending opening of entire country of Mexico to importation of U.S. potatoes at the Idaho Potato Conference in mid-January 2022. Photo: Bill Schaefer

Quarles has plenty of help in his role, however, a fact he’ll readily admit. Joining Quarles on stage at Potato Expo 2022 in Anaheim on Jan. 6 were Matt Lantz of export firm Bryant Christie and current National Potato Council (NPC) vice president of trade affairs — and soon-to-be NPC president — Jared Balcom, a grower-packer in Washington state. (Potatoes USA Chief Marketing Officer John Toaspern was scheduled to participate, but could not make it.)

The trio offered updates on exporting issues facing U.S. shippers and how the whole process works. When an issue arises that the NPC takes the lead on, it almost always starts at the grower level.

“There is always some unknown challenge that pops up out of nowhere,” Balcom said. “(The potato) wart (situation in Prince Edward Island) being one of them. It usually starts at a state or grower level and it goes up from there. … I usually try to reach back out to the growers to get the specifics. … I cannot tell you the amount of contacts Kam and Matt have. When I raise a question, they’ll say, ‘let me call you back.’ Once they do, they’ve already talked to three or four people and have direct answers on what our plan is going to be.” 

Updates were given on trade with numerous countries, including progress in Japan and getting U.S. chipping potatoes examined in China in November — the first U.S. potatoes ever to be shipped to China. 

The big news, however, was the apparent imminent opening of full fresh potato access to Mexico. Previously, fresh potatoes from the U.S. could only be sold within 26 kilometers of the border.

After a visit to Colorado in December, Mexican officials were satisfied with the quality of potatoes and were ready to proceed. All that remains now is registration of shippers to Mexico for both governments. 

“(USDA)-APHIS is working with them on that process. We understand that a number of operations are already registered,” Quarles said Jan. 26. He added that shipments to all of Mexico could begin as soon as early February, but would likely have more details in the coming week. 

Lantz said Jan. 6: “I can’t believe I’m saying this in public, but the political fight, for now, is over.” He stressed “for now,” as twists always seem to be around the corner in the long-lasting quest for fresh access to Mexico.

Estimates have full fresh potato access of Mexico at $150 million to the U.S. potato industry.

An organization of Mexican potato growers (CONPAPA) has been fighting for decades through court and regulatory means to keep fresh potato imports out the country. Early last year, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled unanimously on cases brought to overturn trade agreements made by the Mexican government to allow fresh potatoes from the U.S. to be sold throughout the country.

In April, it was announced that CONPAPA would have a hand in inspecting incoming fresh potatoes. The Potato Expo panelists stressed of importance of fresh potatoes shipped to Mexico being free of disease and pests.

“They’re going to be looking for anything,” Quarles said.

Top photo: From left, National Potato Council CEO Kam Quarles, Matt Lantz of Bryant Christie and Jared Balcom of Balcom & Moe speak about potato industry trade during Potato Expo 2022 in Anaheim. Photo: Zeke Jennings

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