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Supply management no longer 'taboo'

Dave Wilkins, Capital Press 12/15/06

CHICAGO - Three years ago, things looked grim for U.S. potato growers as huge surpluses held prices below the cost of production.

Many growers either bailed out or started making exit plans.

Today, potatoes are profitable again and the future looks brighter for those still in business.

Why the turnaround?

Many growers attending the third annual potato industry outlook summit Dec. 7 in the Windy City credited an unprecedented level of cooperation among producers and the formation of a national supply management co-op.

United Potato Growers of America was formed two years ago in an effort to control the nation's supply of potatoes and return the industry to profitability.

"I think we're seeing some extremely positive results from United Potato Growers," Wisconsin farmer Jim Wysocki, president of the National Potato Council, told fellow producers.

The idea of supply management hasn't always been popular. In fact, there was a lot of resistance and misconception at first, said Mike Telford, a seed potato grower from Paul, Idaho.

When Telford proposed an association of marketing orders be formed for the purpose of supply management, many of his fellow growers, even in Idaho, didn't want to listen.

But during one meeting, Louis Wysocki, Jim's father, insisted that Telford get a hearing.

"Nothing happens until there's a motion on the table," Louis Wysocki said.

Ultimately, the marketing order idea didn't fly, but it helped start a broad discussion that led to a group of growers forming the United Fresh Potato Growers of Idaho cooperative soon afterward.

That in turn led to the formation of the national cooperative and a group of affiliated regional United co-ops in several locations, including the Klamath and Columbia basins, Kern County, Calif., Colorado, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

There's even an affiliated United potato co-op in Canada.

Telford said he's gratified that growers finally got together to manage supply. It's not the specific structure of the organization that was important; it was that growers finally started cooperating and stopped fighting each another.

"We were delighted that United was formed," he said.

Telford, a member of the co-op, said he couldn't help feeling a sense of vindication as he listened to fellow producers at the summit acknowledge the success of supply management.

"It's no longer a taboo subject," said Keith Esplin, executive director of Potato Growers of Idaho, who along with Telford was an early proponent of the concept.

United co-op members share market information on a regular basis and set packing guidelines based on the collective data. Some offer incentives to members who agree to cut acreage.

Some have compared the potato co-op to a cartel and there are still growers who insist it runs counter to free enterprise, a view rejected by United members.

"I don't think that is its intent, and I don't think it has that effect," Louis Wysocki said.

The outlook summit, which started the ball rolling toward formation of the national potato co-op, has grown each year, attracting more growers and a stronger program, organizers said.

More than 200 people registered for the event this year, the most ever.

Presenters included representatives from the U.S. Potato Board, the Food Marketing Institute, Wal-Mart, Jewel-Osco Supermarkets and Branston Ltd., the leading supplier of fresh potatoes to Tesco stores in the United Kingdom.

The strong lineup shows how far the industry has progressed, Louis Wysocki said.

"Three years ago, you wouldn't have had Wal-Mart talking to us," he said.

Despite all the progress there are still plenty of challenges, United members said.

Idaho grower-shippers, for instance, are again taking flak for shipping too many spuds too early in the season.

Idaho fresh shipments were up nearly 7 percent from a year ago through Nov. 30.

"There are still lots of problems," Telford said. "We have a long way to go."

Dave Wilkins is based in Twin Falls, Idaho. His e-mail address is dwilkins@capitalpress.com.
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