Published online: Jun 14, 2012 Seed Potatoes
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In the Egyptian desert, Keith Esplin and his group toured massive farms encompassing upwards of 100,000 acres.

But the farms were tiny on the rich Nile Delta, which supports more than 80 percent of Egypt's sizable potato industry. Esplin, executive director of both the NEU Seed Cooperative and Potato Growers of Idaho, explained a grower can work most of his life to save the roughly $50,000 needed to buy a single acre on the delta.

Egypt is the world's largest buyer of seed potatoes, importing more than 120,000 metric tons, mostly from Europe, during each of the past two years. Esplin, a former potato grower, is aiding in the effort to tap Egypt as a vast new market for U.S. seed growers.

From March 31 through April 6, Esplin and Idaho seed growers Dirk Parkinson and Wyatt Penfold visited Egypt to witness the progress of ongoing seed trials-intended to open U.S. access to the market-and to forge relationships with Egyptian seed importers.

Conducted by a quasi-governmental cooperative of Egyptian growers, trials of U.S. varieties are in their second year, and a pest risk assessment of importing American seed is nearly completed. Esplin hopes to send the first U.S. seed to Egypt this winter. Egyptians consume mostly yellow-flesh potatoes, common among European varieties, but also like those with white flesh and are eager to grow larger American varieties, Esplin said. They prefer varieties with clear skin but have a fry processing plant where Russets could be used. They also have chipping plants for chip varieties.

"We're quite encouraged that they're interested in getting our varieties," Esplin said, adding that expanded trials could commence this fall.

Penfold, who represented the U.S. Potato Board on the trip, said an emphasis would be placed on exporting readily available American seed varieties. He said Egypt could also create a market for undersized seed, which isn't desirable in the U.S. but would work well abroad as whole seed.

"They really want to have good, clean American seed over there because they're tired of dealing with the Europeans. ... The market there is just crazy (as far as) what we could do as seed growers," Penfold said.

Egyptians grow spuds in two seasons, planting imported seed in late November through February and saved seed in September and October.

The Egyptian government subsidizes the price of flour and rice to make sure there's enough food for the population of 83 million. Esplin said potatoes offer more food with considerably less inputs than rice.

Since Egyptian importers are used to dealing with big seed companies, Esplin is inviting other growers to join NEU Seed, which now represents 9,000 seed acres. NEU Seed was formed in 2008 to use a targeted method of modifying genes to enhance desirable potato traits, such as no black spot bruising and resistance to herbicides.

Esplin has also worked to open trade with Brazil and remains hopeful that Brazilian regulations on importing seed will be resolved in time for the U.S. to sell there this winter.

SOURCE: John O'Connell, Capital Press