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US Potato Farmers Seek New Trade Deal With Mexico To "Level The Playing Field"

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Potato farmers are asking U.S. agricultural officials for support in expanding export trade into Mexico. 

Currently, American potato farmers and exporters are mostly barred from selling fresh potatoes in Mexico due to restrictions by the Mexican government, namely that U.S. growers can only sell fresh potatoes within a 26-kilometer (about 16-mile) zone across the Mexican border.

Mexican government officials have cited pest control concerns as the reason for not allowing U.S. potato exports deeper into Mexico. The majority of U.S. potato exports headed south remains dehydrated and frozen potatoes, which currently have no restrictions or tariffs against them.

"The U.S. ships frozen potatoes, dehydrated potatoes and fresh potatoes to Mexico, but fresh potatoes do not have full access into Mexico," said Shawn D. Boyle, president and general counsel of the Idaho Growers Shippers Association. 

Boyle added, "There's actually been a number of legal actions in Mexico that have halted fresh potatoes from being granted access, full access, into Mexico right now — so that's really what we're asking for, a level playing field."

Recently, the Idaho Growers Shippers Association, the National Potato Council and a dozen other U.S. state and regional potato associations sent a "thank you" letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for voicing support for the U.S. potato industry.

Perdue was part of a recent U.S. House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on whether to grant Mexico further access to a $2 billion U.S. avocado market. Perdue suggested any further avocado access for Mexico should include more U.S. fresh potatoes being granted access into Mexico.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) stated during the hearing, "I sent you a letter along with other Texas members and we are still waiting for a response. We are waiting for the required operation work plan that has to be signed where we bring in [avocados] from the state of Jalisco. Right now, we are just dealing with [avocados from] the state of Michoacán, but we're trying to expand and make sure there's no risk to the public. If you haven't seen it, please sign it."

Perdue replied to Cuellar during the hearing, "I know this is important to Mexico. We would also like to resolve the potato issue." 

In the letter to Perdue, U.S. potato growers noted they have sought full access to Mexico for more than 16 years without success. During that same period, the U.S. has become the top market for Mexican avocados, selling $2.35 billion in 2018.

"Though we recognize that [avocados and potatoes] market access issues cannot be formally linked, as they must be considered by Mexico and the U.S., it makes great sense that their parallel paths should be concluded concurrently," the Aug. 16 letter from the potato groups said. "Providing enhanced access for Mexican avocado farmers absent a reciprocal benefit to U.S. potato producers would be a missed opportunity and serve to compromise a potential $150 million-plus annual export market."

Japan, Canada and Mexico are the top export markets for U.S. potatoes. For the July 2018 to June 2019 marketing year, top markets for U.S. exports were Japan ($359 million), Canada ($319 million) and Mexico ($239 million), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Mexico and Canada are natural export markets because logistics to overseas markets can be more difficult, Boyle said. Most potatoes that are shipped from Idaho, Oregon and California to Mexico travel by trucks through either the Nogales or Laredo ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Boyle said that U.S. potato growers just want the same level of access to Mexican consumers that Mexican avocado exporters have in the U.S.

"You know, if consumers in Mexico want to buy potatoes grown in Mexico because they think they are higher quality or because they're a better price or because they want to shop local, that is just great," Boyle said. "We just want to be on the same playing field in that we could get our potatoes in there and give customers an option to buy USA potatoes."

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