Jun 12, 2023
USDA trade mission to Japan features potatoes

Alexis Taylor understands the importance of potatoes. Taylor, USDA Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, is the former head of the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

That state ranked fourth in the U.S. in potato production in 2020, growing 2.7 billion pounds of potatoes, or 7% of the total grown in the country. In 2021, Oregon potato producers sold more than $175 million of the state’s leading vegetable crop.

So spuds were at the forefront of Taylor’s mind during a USDA agribusiness trade mission to Japan June 5-8. That country’s restrictions on fresh potatoes imported from the U.S. has been the subject of much recent conversation, particularly after negotiations opened full access to the Mexican marketplace last May.


“I had very positive discussions with our partners in the Japanese government this week, and we’re going to continue to engage and make progress on this issue,” Taylor said during a conference call on June 8. “It has long been a priority of the U.S. potato industry and the U.S. government to continue to prioritize and expand our market access there.”

Trade mission participants featured potato proponents including Sam Eaton, vice president of legal and government affairs for the Idaho Potato Commission; Chanel Tewalt, Idaho state director of agriculture; Doug Goehring, North Dakota commissioner of agriculture; and officials from Maine and Washington.

“We continue to engage in a very positive manner at the technical level, because these are technical discussions around pest risks and the mitigation measures to pests of concern for Japan from the United States,” Taylor said. “We continue to have really productive technical discussions and also positive discussions at the political level, as I did this week with a bilateral meeting with the Ministry of Agriculture in Japan.”

The U.S. has been able to export fresh potatoes for processing to Japan since 2006, but restrictions remain on fresh potato imports including table stock. Table stock access was first requested almost 30 years ago and elevated to a top priority during U.S.-Japan plant health negotiations in 2019.

Japan, the fourth-largest market for U.S. food and agricultural exports, is the second-largest export market for U.S. potatoes, with exports of frozen potatoes and fresh potatoes for processing reaching a record $388 million in 2022.
Kam Quarles, CEO of the National Potato Council, estimated in a column for the May/June issue of Spudman that easing fresh potato restrictions would mean an additional $150 million to $200 million — an increase of 10% to 15% in global U.S. fresh potato exports.

In a May 11 letter to USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack, members of Congress asserted that the U.S. “comprehensively” addressed concerns about pests and plant health in 2006 in response to a Japanese review of U.S. fresh potatoes.

“There is no valid phytosanitary justification for the market to remain closed or for the government’s current refusal to negotiate,” according to the letter.

Taylor cited a longtime trading relationship with Japan as a reason for optimism. She said nearly 40 U.S. businesses were represented on the June 5-8 trip, the second-ever trade mission to Japan, with 427 business-to-business meetings conducted.

In 2022, the U.S. led five agribusiness trade missions, Taylor said, with measurable results.

“The 12-month projected sales from those five trade missions was $42 million,” she said. “So these have a real impact on our businesses, real impact in the rural and urban communities where these businesses and exporters are based.”

The Japan journey followed Taylor-led trips to Panama and the Netherlands. Missions to Chile, Malaysia, Singapore and Angola are planned.

“There’s a lot of value. I’ve seen it firsthand,” Taylor said. “They (trade missions) really open doors for our exporters, giving them an opportunity to forge relationships with potential customers, to gather market intelligence and, most importantly, generate sales.

“They also de-risk some of what is inherent in building a new trading relationship,” she said. “We are able to vet companies for them so they know, when they’re talking about exporting high-value, high-quality U.S. food or agricultural exports, that these are serious customers.”

One mission participant hoping to drum up international business was Nancy McBrady, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. She made the trip to talk up a dry, sparkling wine made with wild blueberries from Maine.

“The reception was very positive, and we are very excited to be in a country that is very discerning with its tastes, high standards, expectations about quality, (and interest in) stories about farmers, packaging and size,” she said. “These are things that we believe wild blueberries and value-added products will hit out of the park.”

— Melinda Waldrop, Managing Editor

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