EAGLE, Idaho-The Idaho Potato Commission has agreed to find a way to cover a $94,000 state shortfall in funding for an important pest survey that is necessary to ship fresh Idaho potatoes to Mexico.
The survey tests Idaho potato fields for the potato cyst nematode, which was discovered in some east Idaho fields in 2006.
Fresh U.S. potatoes can only be sold inside a 26-kilometer (16-mile) zone near the border of Mexico, but Idaho officials are hopeful the entire country could be opened this year.
The National Potato Council estimates gaining full access to Mexico would provide U.S. fresh growers a market potential of $150 million per year, quadruple the amount of potatoes currently being sold within the 26-kilometer zone.
IPC officials argued that supporting the survey program is worth it to prepare the state's industry to take advantage of the opportunity that will open up when fresh potatoes can be shipped to all of Mexico.
IPC-sponsored surveys show Mexican consumers in the 26K zone prefer Idaho's Russet potato over Mexican varieties by an 80-20 margin.
"This is a market we can own if we do it right," said IPC President and CEO Frank Muir. "One of our goals is to get more acres (surveyed) so we can continue to expand in Mexico."
After the USDA stopped funding the cost of the surveys last year, Idaho obtained a $191,000 federal grant through the Foreign Agricultural Service and the Idaho State Department of Agriculture began conducting the surveys itself.
IPC officials previously assured the ISDA the commission would cover any shortfall in funding. Lloyd Knight, administrator of the ISDA's Plant Industries Division, told IPC board members recently the program's costs totaled $285,000 during the first year.
The program surveyed 13,700 acres, which was about 4,000 more than expected, Knight said, and fuel costs have also skyrocketed.
That leaves the department with a $94,000 shortfall and no way to cover it, he said.
While the commission will solve the shortfall this year, the question of who will pay for the program in future years could be a hot topic. The federal grant for the next two years is only $76,000 per year and if all of Mexico is opened to U.S. potatoes, the amount of acres being surveyed is expected to rise substantially.
Some commissioners argued that shippers and growers who sell fresh potatoes to Mexico should pay or help pay the program's costs.
Commissioner Paul Saras noted that with the grant amount shrinking significantly, the overages would amount to about $184,000 a year the next two years.
"Are you willing to pay for 20,000 acres next year or 30,000 acres?" he asked fellow commissioners.
Commissioner Alan Taylor said that if the U.S. gains full access to Mexico, "I think after that point, (the cost) has to shift to the shippers and growers if they want that business. (But), we owe it to the industry to do it until that time comes."
SOURCE: Sean Ellis, Capital Press