Washington potatoes headed to South Korea

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OLYMPIA — As a Washington delegation wrapped up a trade mission in Asia this week, the United States and South Korea worked out a deal on the export of one of the state's key crops — potatoes.

A new agreement on how to check for a specific pest, the zebra chip bacteria, will allow for some 20,000 metric tons of Washington spuds to be shipped to South Korea and turned into potato chips or other snack foods, state officials said. The agreement, which involves cutting a certain number of potatoes in each shipment to check for the bacteria, also covers shipments from Idaho and Oregon. Without it, no potatoes would have been shipped to the country.

The market for fresh potatoes remains closed, but sales of processed products like french fries are open and are expected to total about $36.4 million this year. Gov. Chris Gregoire tried to boost interest in fries by donning an apron and handing some out in a Popeye's restaurant in Seoul.

Another Washington farm product growing in popularity in South Korea is cherries, Gregoire said in a telephone press conference from Seoul. The recent free trade agreement between the two countries removed a 24 percent tariff on the fruit, and sales of Washington cherries to the country doubled. Koreans bought nearly $24 million worth of that fruit this year.

The biggest seller of fresh cherries in the world is a Costco store in Seoul.