Maine potato industry watching negotiations with Mexico

Posted Jan. 19, 2013, at 6:01 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 20, 2013, at 4:11 p.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — With President Barack Obama set to officially begin his second term, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and potato industry leaders have joined counterparts from other states in a bid to urge him to secure a broader market for U.S. potatoes in Mexico.

If they are successful, officials with the Maine Potato Board said on Thursday that the move could allow more growers in the state to market their potatoes within that nation’s borders.

The relationship with Mexico began in 2003, when the United States and Mexico signed a market access agreement that allowed all states to ship fresh potatoes into a 16-mile-deep area along the border of Mexico. The agreement called for increased access to the five northern Mexican states the next year and for consideration of full access by 2005. At this point, however, Mexico has not yet honored any of the commitments for the subsequent years, prohibiting the potatoes from being shipped past that 16-mile area.

Late last month, Collins joined 16 other senators from potato-producing states, including Idaho, Colorado and North Dakota, in sending a letter to Obama urging him to work with the Mexican government to help expand access to the Mexican market for U.S. potatoes.

Tim Hobbs, director of development and grower relations for the Maine Potato Board, said that to his knowledge, Maine has not yet sold any potatoes to Mexico. Western states that are closest to Mexico are the most likely shippers, he explained, as it is less costly for them to transport their crop there than it would be for growers in Maine. But if the U.S. is able to secure a broader market in Mexico, Hobbs said that it would allow western states to sell more potatoes to that country and open up the market for Maine and other eastern potato-producing states to sell more of their crop out west.

“Anytime you find more customers for your product, that is obviously a good thing,” said Hobbs. “But if you have western states shipping more of their product into Mexico, it likely would create a demand for potatoes out in that area that growers in the east could fill.”

One of the barriers standing in the way of greater U.S. potato importation is Mexico’s concern over pests. The issue was addressed in the letter sent by the senators to Obama.

“Every effort has been made to provide officials in Mexico with valid science and assessment of risk to advance the process of expanding U.S. potato access,” they wrote. “In fact, both the Mexican Minister of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture supported a 2011 international expert science panel tasked with evaluating phytosanitary concerns that ultimately rendered an opinion clearly establishing a path forward for expanding market access for U.S. potatoes in Mexico.”

The senators told Obama that they believed that positively resolving the potato market access issue would be an important part of continuing to develop a strong and growing trading relationship with Mexico.

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