Farmers push spuds

More potatoes than storage space forces state to market abroad

Posted: Tuesday, July 11, 2000

FAIRBANKS - The state's farmers are trying to get consumers here and abroad to buy more Alaska-grown potatoes.

Alaska potato production last year was the second largest of the past decade. So farmers and the state Division of Agriculture are pushing spuds to make room in storage for this year's harvest.

``We have a surplus of potatoes in the state now. That's why it's so important to develop these overseas markets,'' said James Drew, a member of the board of directors of the Alaska Agricultural Development and Marketing, a non-profit corporation that promotes marketing Alaska products to national and international markets.

The 1999 harvest yielded 18.5 million pounds. The largest potato production in the 1990s occurred in 1995, with 22 million pounds.

Last year's plentiful harvest was the result of several favorable circumstances. Thirty additional acres were planted, precipitation occurred in the right amount at the right time, and good harvesting weather accounted for the high harvest yield.

Marketers who have sold potatoes to Asia in the past are trying to take advantage of the large crop, but because of fluctuating political relationships and a still-small overseas trade market, only a few containers have been shipped.

According to Drew, 80,000 pounds of table potatoes and 60,000 pounds of seed potatoes from the 1999 crop were sent to Taiwan immediately after harvest, and a small shipment of soil-testing potatoes had also been sent to a northern province in China.

Taiwan imports Alaska potatoes because farmers there have difficulty growing disease-free potatoes. Their tropical climate creates insect problems and the tremendous population density forces farmers to grow the potatoes close together.

Some countries, including Canada and the Netherlands, are also interested in shipping potatoes to Taiwan, Drew said. But most potato farms in those two countries need to use pesticides, while Alaska farms don't.

``Because of the cold environment we don't have as many pests, so we don't have to use as many pesticides,'' Drew said. ``That's basically the selling point we've tried to use.''

Jenifer Huang McBeath, president of Alaska Potato Growers, heads the export certification program, a voluntary operation working with the agriculture marketing agency. The certification program checks for eight potato diseases on different farms throughout the area.

Alaska potatoes can only be exported if their samples have none of the eight diseases.

``Our program is probably the most extensive in the world because of the lab testing,'' McBeath said.

Volunteers test the potatoes in farms in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys, Delta, Fairbanks, the Eielson area, Nenana and Talkeetna.

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