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Valley potato seed market growing

Modified: Saturday, Jun 22nd, 2013

From left: Martinez Farms owner Segundo Diaz laughs with Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation (MALR) representatives Dr. Abu-serie Mahmoud Halwa, Director of the Potato Brown Rot Project, Dr. Mohamed Refaat Rasmy Eladawy, Head of Central Administration of Plant Quarantine and Dr. Mona Mehrez Hassanean, Central Administration of Foreign Agricultural Relations Supervisor, while examining greenhouse potato seeds on Tuesday during the Egyptian trade mission to the US. Courier photo by Lauren Krizansky

Courier staff writer

ALAMOSA COUNTY — Valley certified potato seed is gearing up for Africa and beyond.

On Tuesday, a team of Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation (MALR) delegates visited with local and state industry officials and toured Martinez Farms in Alamosa County on their trade mission to see for themselves if high-altitude potato seed has a place amongst the Sphinx and the pyramids.

Over the past three years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Potato Board (USPB) have been working to open up trade with several nations including Egypt, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka and Sub-Saharan Africa. This week’s trade mission that includes a visit with Montana producers tomorrow is scheduled to end in a finalized and signed trade agreement on Friday between Egypt’s Central Administration of Plant Quarantine and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for US potato seed access.

While in the Valley, the four-person trade mission reviewed potato seed growing practices, met with seed certification officials and toured Martinez Farms with owner Segundo Diaz, a potential Egyptian seed supplier who already has his Chieftain and Atlantic seeds abroad in Uruguayan and Brazilian fields.

Egypt, a country that has its share of crop diseases and importation disasters, is looking for varieties that have resistance for its 212,000 acres devoted to potato production. The two varieties they are considering importing from the US are the Cal White and the Megachip, which are not typical Valley fresh market varieties, but finding their way into seed production. Egyptian Cal White research trials have outperformed the Spunta variety, which the nation currently produces and exports.

“This is creating diversity for our market,” said Diaz, a Peruvian irrigation engineer turned farmer who is looking forward to his 29th Valley potato harvest this fall. “This is an action, a tool we are using. Right now, it is a little better than our own market, but it has its own risks.”

One of the leading concerns is phytosanitary because the transfer of plant disease is a serious threat to all trade parties. Egypt, in particular, is looking for seed that is free from brown rot and ring rot, a promise they have heard before from other countries.

“The difference between here and Europe is that we have control over our soil moisture,” said USPB International Representative Peter Joyce about diseases stemming from over irrigation. “This control helps reduce ring problems. So does the lack of rain at harvest.”

In addition, Diaz said the Valley’s cold winters put an end to most disease cycles.

“We are very fortunate for this climate,” he said. “We don’t have these problems. It has been inspected. This is a certified opinion.”

Today, the US has conquered some phytosanitary barriers, permitting commercial potato seed sales in South America, Panama, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, which represents a large portion of the US’s export market.

Diaz also recognized seed size is another concern for potential foreign interests.

“One of the constraints is this market sometimes prefers whole seed,” Diaz said. “Agriculture practices are much different in other places than our reality here.”

Not only the practices, but the cultural customs and country policies are also a challenge.

“It’s a tough game,” Joyce said. “We have to find out where we fit.”

“We” is shaping up to include Colorado and 11 other states embarking on the APHIS State National Harmonization Program (SNAP), which will set unified parameters for seed potato trade. The program is a joint effort between APHIS, the National Potato Council, the United States Potato Board, the National Plant Board, and state seed certification agencies, which will agree to follow baseline standards regarding both quarantine and non-quarantine potato pests, creating a framework for interstate and international commerce.

The new program was first discussed at a 2002 potato summit, where growers, government officials and industry representatives proposed the idea to harmonize requirements, according to a USDA press release. At the time, state certification requirements for seed potato production varied from state-to-state and each state had to negotiate their own market access based on their individual certification standards.

Nearly all of U.S. seed potato production falls under the newly launched program’s guidelines, according to the press release.  The states involved represent 98.5 percent of all U.S. seed potato acreage: Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming. New York, California and Alaska are in the process of completing the requirements for entry into the program. Alabama, Pennsylvania and West Virginia - three non-seed potato producing states - have also signed onto the program in an effort to demonstrate to trading partners that their potato industries are following best practices.

The SNHP partnership between state and federal agencies will allow the partners to not only improve trade, but also to deal with future potato pest issues in a coordinated fashion, according to APHIS, which advances science-based standards with trading partners to ensure US agricultural exports valued at more than $135 billion annually are protected from unjustified restrictions.

“It looks like it is all going well,” said Dr. Abu-serie Mahmoud Halwa, the Egyptian Director of the Potato Brown Rot Project, after touring Diaz’ seed operation and asking numerous questions about the Valley’s disease and pest situation. “I want to be here when the plants are growing in the field so I can inspect them.”


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