20 for ’20

Published online: Feb 06, 2020 Articles
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This article appears in the January 2020 issue of Potato Grower.

Industry trends to look for in the coming decade

In this super-extended version of our “Top 5,” we take a look into the future. We asked several of our much more intelligent and well-informed friends—the Zoltars of the industry, if you will—to gaze into their respective crystal balls to predict what’s coming for the potato industry in the 2020s.

  1. International demand for U.S. potatoes

While the sticky trade situation with China won’t disappear overnight, there is a definite recognition of the quality of U.S. potatoes, says Potatoes USA chief operating officer John Toaspern. Toaspern expects that a recently agreed-to limited trade agreement between the U.S. and Japan will reduce the tariffs on U.S. potatoes and products in line with concessions already granted to our competitors, which would be a boon for U.S. exporters hoping to sell potatoes in a major international market.

  1. Speed and efficiency for agrochemicals

Growers are likely to continue to consolidate practices at an increasing rate—such as planting while simultaneously applying liquid fertilizer, fungicides and insecticides.  “Agricultural chemical products will need to be foolproof,” says Dan Bihlmeyer, vice president of sales and marketing at Vive Crop Protection. “Increased tolerance and resistance to various actives will result in multi-product combinations, which will in turn provide multi-modes of action.”

  1. Increased environmental scrutiny

“Farmers have to be able to tell their sustainability story in a positive way,” says Bihlmeyer, “both locally to consumers and processors, and to others throughout the food supply chain.”

This dynamic should increase the demand for biologicals and reduce fuel and water use. Unfortunately, Bihlmeyer believes this will also create even more complexity in the agrochemical conversation, forcing farmers to apply more products that are less environmentally friendly and more difficult to use.

  1. Fewer active ingredient discoveries and registrations

The trend of mergers and acquisitions in the ag chem industry isn’t likely to subside. With the timeline to register new products already long and cost-prohibitive, Bihlmeyer predicts that figuring out how to use existing actives in different ways will become a higher priority.

  1. Transformative technology will help solve many challenges.

Vive specializes in nanotechnology, which creates different ways to use existing actives. For example, Vive’s AZteroid FC 3.3, a nanotechnology-enabled azoxystrobin product, is able to be mixed with liquid fertilizer and applied at-plant, saving a trip across the field, saving water, and providing a different way to use an existing AI.

“Nanotechnology will ensure that biological products are stable and viable for delivery to the field,” says Bihlmeyer. “It will allow for mixing of biologicals and synthetic chemistry without jeopardizing biological activity. This will reduce the environmental load of chemistry and ensure that exact rates and molecules are applied in precision agriculture.”

  1. Connected crop management

The idea of precision agriculture has become more concrete and seen great advancements over the past decade, and that can be expected to continue.

“Inegrated data access is one of the foundational advancements that has moved pivot and linear irrigation forward,” says Valley Irrigation vice president of global technology strategy Trevor Mecham, himself a fourth-generation potato grower. “This data helps growers make smarter decisions more quickly, saving labor and resources.”

  1. Camera and sensor technology

“Imagery and detection services by camera and sensor will continue to expand,” says Mecham, “giving growers the abilitiy to scan entire fields in a couple hours with real-time feedback for pest and disease pressure. Potato growers, for example, could detect early signs of leaf roll, potato beetle or indicators of blight.”

  1. Continued rise of predictive analytics

Mecham foresees machine learning, computer vision and artificial intelligence changing the way growers are able to detect signs of crop stress and essentially scan the health of their fields.

“This will enable growers, who have historically only been able to react, to be proactive and effectively avoid issues stemming from a variety of predictable events,” he says.

  1. Autonomous pivots and other equipment

“In the near future, center pivots won’t just be irrigation machines,” says Mecham. “They will be utilized as a digital data hub, bringing unprecedented visibility to fields so growers can optimize irrigation and progress toward fully autonomous crop management. Sharing the intelligence between connected field devices and pivots, along with the integration of data science and machine learning, will deliver critical information for greater crop precision.”

  1. Political partisanship

“If the hyper-partisan climate in Washington, D.C., and in states across the nation persists, it will continue to hinder efforts resolve issues through legislative processes,” says Mike Wenkel, chief operating officer for the National Potato Council (NPC). “The industry must increase education with policymakers, conveying the impact of their decisions and offering practical solutions to elected officials who are increasingly new to their roles and disconnected from production agriculture.”

  1. Focus on ag labor

“Creating and implementing a solution to the agricultural labor crisis will remain a focus for the industry,” says Wenkel. Such a solution will need to address legalizing the current improperly documented workforce, modernizing the guest worker program to ensure that it responds to industry needs, and enforcement provisions to ensure participants are playing by the rules.

  1. Challenges to international trade

The use of phytosanitary and technical barriers to trade by competitors are likely to increase as global tariffs are reduced, Wenkel says. The European Union’s use of the “precautionary principle” in restricting or eliminating crop protection tools, combined with their interest in pushing other export markets to utilize that extreme philosophy, will continue to impact global disease management, establishment of responsible maximum residue limits (MRLs), and trade in general. The industry can also expect a lot of work to eliminate tariffs in key global markets.

  1. Promotion of potatoes’ dietary value

Consumers’ growing interest in food production will require the industry to promote positive dietary aspects of potatoes. Wenkel expects the 2020 Dietary Guidelines, trendy diets and sustainability-focused efforts to each require science-based data to accurately educate consumers about potatoes’ contribution to a healthy lifestyle.

  1. Public reassessment of carbohydrates

There is already a growing recognition that people do, in fact, people need carbs in their diet. “The Whole 30 diet has added white potatoes to its approved list, and the Weight Watchers Purple track embraces potatoes,” says Potatoes USA’s Toaspern. “Challenges will, however, remain for potatoes as consumers weigh factors such as glycemic index scores in the battle of good carbs vs. bad carbs.”

  1. Changes at retail

Erena Connon, assistant global marketing manager at Potatoes USA, says that “sustainability” will remain a buzzword for the foreseeable future, and retailers will begin demanding that plastic packaging be replaced with paper or other “sustainable” materials.

“Specialized potato products should continue to proliferate as food companies cater to busy, health-conscious consumers with products such as pre-cooked, pre-seasoned and microwaveable potatoes,” she says.

  1. More attention paid to disease at planting and in storage

While disease scouting and management in the field, research dollars are likely to increasingly be spent looking at the beginning and end of potatoes’ time with the grower. A prime example is a research project currently being undertaken by the University of Idaho’s Kasia Duellman, Phill Wharton and James Woodhall to combat Fusarium dry rot via handling practices, cultivar decisions and fungicide resistance management.

  1. The need for private-public partnerships

“The University of Idaho’s spore trapping network gives growers a heads-up if certain airborne pathogens are detected, leading to proactive rather than reactive disease management,” says Duellman. “It’s a great model for an effective industry-university-grower partnership.”

This sort of cooperation will be paramount if the industry hopes to keep pace with ever-evolving retail and regulatory environments.

  1. Harmonized seed certification standards

Individual seed potato-producing states have different tolerances for. While there is a State National Harmonization Plan prescribing minimum requirements for certification of seed potatoes, it does not outline how each state collects data on diseases, nor on how they are reported. 

“The commercial sector is demanding more consistency in how pathogen levels are assessed and reported,” says Nina Zidack, director of the Montana Seed Potato Certification Program. “And they should. Seed programs need to keep up with that demand.”

  1. Decline in post-harvest field grow-outs

Direct tuber testing using PCR has become standard practice in Europe for post-harvest detection of a number of potato viruses. Zidack anticipates land in warm-weather areas such as Florida and Hawaii will become more difficult to access for field grow-outs, increasing the need for lab-based testing. The speed with which PCR and other diagnostics can now be conducted after harvest should only accelerate this trend. 

  1. More vertical integration

“The size of seed potato farms, in particular, will increase,” says Zidack. “This will be accompanied by increased vertical integration of seed production up through commercial production and marketing.”

An increasing number of farms in the U.S. are already initiating seed production through their own tissue culture and mini-tuber programs, transferring that material to their seed farms, and ultimately producing seed for their own commercial operations.