Local Ag and Mexican offiicals hope to whip up potato exports

Special to The Colorado Statesman

State and federal agricultural officials have entered into discussions with Mexico that are as energized as a game of hot potato.

Both sides are trying to figure out how to increase Colorado fresh potato exports so that deliveries are not restricted to the first 16 miles of Mexico along the U.S. border. Mexico currently allows fresh potatoes from the United States to be imported only into a 16-mile border zone. The so-called “external quarantine” aims to reduce the number of potato-related pests introduced into Mexico.

But in Colorado on Monday, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture John Salazar and United States Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Edward Avalos met with Mexican dignitaries to show them some of Colorado’s finest potato products, and to ease concerns over potato-related pests, such as golden nematode.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper fields questions from the press at the Governor's Mansion kicking off a tour Monday promoting Colorado potatoes to visiting Mexican buyers. Around him are, left to right, Mexican Consul General Andres Chao Ebergenyi, Marisela Diaz Sanchez of Distribuidores Rashid, and U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Edward Avalos.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

“The scientists on the U.S. side tell us that the same nematode that exists in the U.S. also exists in Mexico, and so it should not be a concern …” Avalos said on Monday following a breakfast at the Governor’s Residence with Gov. John Hickenlooper, state lawmakers and high-profile visitors from Mexico. “You don’t put the potato producers in Mexico at risk by bringing in these potatoes.”

In Colorado, potato exports to Mexico is big money. Colorado represents 44 percent of all fresh potatoes exported to that country. About 1,770 truckloads of potatoes leave Colorado for Mexico every year.
State agricultural officials and potato farmers are hoping that negotiations with Mexico will lead to an expanded export zone. Opening up new markets in Mexico could boost Colorado potato exports by about $46 million, bringing the export revenue to $60 million annually, according to Timothy Larsen, senior international marketing specialist for the Department of Agriculture in Colorado.

A 5-pound bag of Colorado russets from John Tonso's Cañon Potato Company in Center, CO. has made its way to Littleton's Safeway stroe at 181 West Mineral Avenue.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Negotiations with Mexico are ongoing, and a mediation panel is meeting to work out an agreement. Officials hope to have one by the end of August.

Hickenlooper, with roots in geology, brewing and restaurant management, is hardly an expert when it comes to potatoes. But the governor understands the significance expanded potato exports from Colorado to Mexico could have on the state’s fiscal outlook.

Safeway's Director of Public Affairs Kristina J. Staaf joins Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar in Safeway's produce department.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

“Potatoes are a good symbol that we believe in. As we export potatoes, we will help the markets in Mexico as well …” the governor said outside on the carriage house patio of his official residence in Capitol Hill. “The hope is that with potatoes brought back into Mexico, it increases the overall consumption of potatoes. Again, it builds trade and helps build countries.”

The governor then paused for a moment before joking, “Mas o menos.”

Andres Chao, consul general of Mexico in Denver, agreed that an expanded trade agreement could be positive for both nations.

“This is one of the most important issues — bilateral relations between Mexico and the United States in trade, in this case, the potato,” said Chao. “It is very important for us.”

The two-day event kicked off Monday with a breakfast at the Governor’s Residence. Later that morning the VIP group toured a couple Colorado supermarkets, including an upscale Safeway in Littleton on West Mineral Avenue. Salazar and Avalos led the small group of Mexican dignitaries and retailers on a tour of Colorado produce.

USDA Undersecretary Edward Avalos visited Colorado for a personalized potato tour.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Commissioner Salazar first stopped at the butcher counter to point out to Undersecretary Avalos a cut of rib-eye steaks. The prior evening, Salazar had purchased a couple of the steaks to treat Avalos to a true Colorado beef dinner.

“He says it’s the best beef he’s ever had,” Salazar joked in Avalos’ direction.

“They weren’t bad …” quipped Avalos.

Stopping at the supermarket’s potato selection, the group joined up with John Tonso, whose family has owned and operated Canon Potato Co. in the San Luis Valley since 1952.

“If we don’t have those guys and they don’t have us, we have nothing,” Tonso said of the relationship between producers and retailers. “The export market is exciting right now because these people are wanting more potatoes exported from Colorado, but there are limitations because there are some things that they don’t allow into Mexico …”

Safeway's Produce Field Merchandiser Mike Miranda, Colorado Ag Commissioner John Salazar, Manager of Mexico City's Central Market Josefina Rodriguez, Distribuidores Rashid's Marisela Diaz Sanchez, Cañon Potato Co.'s John Tonso, and Safeway's District Manager Eric Lucero grab handsful of Colorado spuds.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Tonso explained that because of Colorado’s high, dry and warm climate in the San Luis Valley that doesn’t attract many pests, Colorado produces a “good, clean product” that Mexico should not fear.

Salazar, who is also a potato farmer in addition to a cattle rancher in the San Luis Valley, argues that Colorado makes a fine potato product that should be accepted and expanded in Mexico.

“Mexico is a very good trading partner to the United States and we hope that we can further our relationship with Mexico and continue to actually achieve the goals that NAFTA set out for us,” said Salazar.

International marketing specialist Tim Larsen describes how Colorado potatoes make their way across the border into Mexico and what it will take to expand this market.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Meanwhile, U.S. officials are also working on an agreement with Mexico that would allow Mexican trucks to enter the United States, ending a long-standing dispute between the countries over cross-border trucking. Negotiations are ongoing, and officials hope to have an agreement as early as this month.

The agreement could mean additional potato exports to Mexico from Colorado. For the nation, it would mean ending tariffs on some $2.4 billion worth of U.S. products.

Undersecretary Avalos said earlier that an agreement has been reached and officials are in the process of implementing it.

“This is extremely important to maintaining the trade relationship we have between our two countries,” said Avalos.

In the meantime, state and federal officials will continue negotiations with the aim of allowing Colorado to move ahead with additional potato exports to Mexico.

Larsen of Colorado’s agriculture department points out that Colorado has an advantage both geographically and financially in exporting potatoes to Mexico. He says there is currently a shortage of potatoes in Mexico and both countries stands to benefit from a trade agreement.

“Look at a map. We have one place where we have a transportation advantage …” he said, noting Colorado’s relatively close proximity to Mexico. “We can deliver a value in price.”