Posted: Thursday, May 05, 2011 10:00 AM
Other potato states question need for federal regulation program
By DAVE WILKINS
Idaho farmers will hang onto mandatory size and grade regulations for fresh-market potatoes even as some other areas seek to dump such rules.
Growers in Idaho and Malheur County, Ore., recently voted to continue their federal marketing order.
The program authorizes the establishment of minimum grade, size, quality and pack requirements.
About 91 percent of the Idaho growers who voted in the referendum March 5 to March 18 cast their ballots in favor of retaining the program, the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service announced April 29.
Bob Hansen, manager of the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Potato Committee, the local group that administers the marketing order, said producers continue to see value in a system that allows them to set size and grade requirements, which are then enforced by federal inspectors.
In Idaho, fresh russets must be at least 2 inches in diameter or weigh at least four ounces to be packed as U.S. No. 1 grade spuds. The USDA standard is a minimum diameter of one inch and seven-eighths.
"We have a better grade than the USDA standards, and we can advertise that fact," Hansen said.
The Idaho brand and its high packing standard sets it apart from other potato production areas, he said.
"If we didn't have a product better than the U.S. standard, then we would end up being just like everybody else," Hansen said.
But spud growers in some other production areas have begun to question the need to belong to a federal marketing order.
Wisconsin no longer has a federal marketing order, nor does Oregon (outside of Malheur County).
Growers in Washington state could be next.
They're scheduled to vote June 11 to 24 on whether to continue their federal marketing order.
Washington state growers voted last year to suspend federal regulations affecting fresh russets for one year. The suspension is slated to end June 30, unless they decide to make it permanent, which seems likely.
Matt Harris, manager of the State of Washington Potato Committee, expects that growers in the state will vote to make the suspension permanent and discontinue the federal marketing order.
Customers ultimately decide the quality and size of potatoes that go into fresh packs, Harris said.
"What we have found out is that the end user is already setting that bar," he said. "That retail customer has already set the bar higher than the USDA."
Suspending federal packing regulations hasn't diminished the quality of Washington potatoes, but it has eliminated the need for federal inspectors to be on-site whenever a shed is packing spuds, Harris said.
That has given shed owners the flexibility to employ federal inspectors more sparingly and on their schedule. The inspectors are only needed when the shed is running potatoes for customers who demand a USDA grade on the packaging.
Idaho and Colorado will be the only potato states with federal marketing orders if Washington dissolves its order.