Northwest officials and potato growers are hopeful a recent trade mission to Southeast Asia will help spur demand for Columbia Basin spuds.
The 21 delegates from the Washington and Oregon agriculture departments and potato commissions returned from the mission last week with to-do lists of follow-up needed with importers and officials from the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar, all relatively new markets for fresh Northwest potatoes.
“The level of enthusiasm from the different markets was really positive,” said Joe Bippert, Washington state Department of Agriculture’s international marketing program manager.
Residents of all three nations are interested in eating what Americans do, so there is plenty of opportunity for fresh potatoes and processed potato products, such as french fries, said potato grower Ted Tschirky of Connell’s Sand Ridge Farms, who went on the mission.
Exports are critical for Washington’s potato industry. Of the 9.6 billion pounds of potatoes the state grows each year, about half are exported to other countries.
It helped to present a united front with Oregon, since both states face similar trade barriers in Southeast Asia, Tschirky said.
Leif Benson, executive chef for the Oregon Potato Commission, was able to demonstrate cooking with Northwest potatoes to high-end chefs in Manila and advanced culinary students in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, said Bippert, who went on the mission.
Ryan Holterhoff, the Washington State Potato Commission’s director of marketing and industry affairs, said they were able to reach the people who decide what menus to offer and what food products they will use to make meals for their customers.
Only about half the culinary students had ever cooked using a potato, something that would be surprising for Americans, Bippert said. The demonstrations were a great chance to introduce potatoes as something they can use to set themselves apart as they try to become executive chefs.
Holterhoff, who went on the mission, said they also were able to continue ongoing conversations over barriers to trade with the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar.
Hopefully discussions with Vietnamese traders and importers will cause them to put the pressure on their own government to consider lowering tariffs on Northwest potatoes, Bippert said.
Vietnamese traders and importers would like to buy Northwest potatoes, but not at current prices, Bippert said. Prices are high because Northwest potatoes face higher tariffs than Chinese potatoes.
It’s important to keep trade issues on the forefront, Bippert said. Negotiations are ongoing now for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a potential trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 other countries including Vietnam.
Vietnam imported about $2.9 million of Washington processed potatoes and $591,000 in fresh potatoes last year. The country officially opened up to U.S. fresh potatoes in 2010.
In the Philippines, Bippert said they actually got to see how much of an issue port congestion is in getting products into the country.
The Philippines is working to address congestion at its ports, Holterhoff said. As an island nation, it imports a lot of what its population eats. The delay is an issue especially when shipping fresh potatoes.
That will be a temporary challenge, but Bippert said they will have to make sure potatoes going to the Philippines are properly refrigerated.
Washington exported about $42.9 million in processed potatoes and $335,000 in fresh potatoes to the Philippines last year. Processed potatoes are the second-largest state export to the Philippines, after wheat. The Philippines started to allow fresh Northwest potatoes in June 2013.
In Myanmar, Holterhoff said they were able to pique the interest of importers and officials for Northwest potatoes. No Washington potatoes are shipped to Myanmar, which opened up to U.S. trade in May 2013.
Myanmar is seeing more demand for higher-end, quality products with the growth of its middle class, but the country lacks the infrastructure needed to handle storing and transporting those items, including cold storage and good roads, Holterhoff said.
One of the challenges with Myanmar is the country doesn’t have some of the same technology to process potatoes in comparison to other markets, Bippert said. Many tasks remain manual, including cutting potato chips.
The country also lacks the technology to process larger Northwest potatoes, which in general are considered more desirable than smaller ones, he said. The local potatoes are about the size of a baby’s fist.
“Some of our smallest potatoes are exactly what they are looking for,” Bippert said.
Tschirky said Myanmar has quite a ways to go to be up to the technology and cleanliness standards found in the Northwest potato industry.
In Myanmar, customers are used to potatoes that Northwest growers would normally cull, Tschirky said.
Mostly, Myanmar importers, traders and officials seemed interested in the Northwest’s technology. Bippert said they talked about how when China opened up, the Chinese bought Northwest potatoes, which provided the incentive needed for companies to invest in infrastructure in China. That then boosted demand for locally grown potatoes.