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News / Life / Food

State potato growers enjoy an advantage

By Cheryl Schweizer, Columbia Basin Herald
Published: November 19, 2015, 5:53am

MOSES LAKE — As far as agriculture goes, Grant County potato growers are in a pretty sweet spot. The job for the future is finding ways to stay in the sweet spot, said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington Potato Commission.

Most Washington potatoes, Grant County’s included, are grown for the process market. “Ninety percent of what we grow is an ingredient,” processed into French fries, hash browns and similar products, he said.

But on a per-capita basis, U.S. residents are eating fewer potatoes overall, Voigt said, and that trend dates back about 15 years. Research shows potato consumption is down “because people just aren’t cooking.” It turns out children are the crucial factor in potato consumption. “People eat potatoes when there are kids.”

Potato production hasn’t changed much in that span because the country’s population is still increasing due to immigration. Potato acreage in Grant County in any given year is about 170,000 to 175,000 acres.

Because Grant County growers can grow more potatoes on less ground than any growers in the world, the county is kind of isolated from some market pressure, Voigt explained. Processors take — and will continue to take — all the potatoes county growers can produce, he said, and for the foreseeable future, county growers will have a market.

But while the U.S. market is flat, worldwide demand is growing, Voigt said. “Now we have to play in the international market.” American potato growers have good customers in Asia, and were building a market until the slowdown at U.S. ports in late 2014 and early 2015. The slowdown was tied to a labor dispute between the unions representing some port workers and the agencies that operate the ports.

The slowdown left tons of produce, from apples to hay to potatoes, stranded on the docks up and down the West Coast. In the case of potatoes, European growers filled the gap. “It’s difficult. It really is,” to get those customers back, Voigt said, and American marketers are “doubling our efforts” in the Pacific Rim countries.

The American market is affected by concerns about the nutritional value of potatoes, but that’s a less important factor than the change in cooking habits, he said. Potato marketers, in Washington and nationally, are working and have worked to turn that nutritional message around. That was one reason, Voigt said, behind his 60-day experiment in eating only potatoes, five years ago.

“If you were to believe all the myths out there, I’d be dead.” But he lost weight, Voigt said, and his blood sugar and cholesterol levels dropped. “I literally got healthier eating just potatoes for 60 days.”

A just-potato diet didn’t include any of the fatty acids necessary to good health, he said, “so I had to eat potato chips and French fries to make my diet healthier.”

The 60 days of potatoes attracted attention all over the world; “it went viral, and I did over 300 interviews.”