PRESQUE ISLE — Potato growers across the United States and Canada who sell their produce to french fry processors are upset about the low prices they receive while the costs of raising those spuds are on the rise.
Last week, representatives of processing growers groups, including the Agricultural Bargaining Council of Maine, agreed during a meeting in Boise, Idaho, to work closer together to share pricing and production information.
More than half of the nation’s potato production is sold as french fries, according to industry officials. In Maine, about 60 percent of the crop is processed.
Such cooperation could help when growers negotiate contracts with french fry manufacturers, such as McCain Foods Inc., Orieda and J.R. Simplot Co. While Maine has several smaller processing plants, the largest buyer of potatoes is McCain, with a plant in Easton.
Because of the Good Friday holiday, McCain’s corporate offices were closed and officials were unavailable for comment on the grower meeting.
An agreement, if achieved, would give growers more of an edge when it comes to landing processing contracts.
Potato industry officials interviewed Friday said that processors can use growers against each other, sometimes saying that raw material can be purchased elsewhere cheaper if the grower doesn’t agree to a contract.
“They’re using our lack of knowledge against us,” said Garry Sloik, of Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, president of the Potato Marketing Association of North America.
The organization, established in 1973, represents processing growers across the U.S. and Canada. During the April 15 session in Boise, the PMANA brought together about 50 representatives of almost a dozen bargaining councils from across the continent.
Organizers hope the session will begin to rebuild the network between the growing areas, according to Duane Maatz, president of the Red River Valley Potato Growers Association in Minnesota.
Initially, Maatz hopes the effort will lead to more sharing of information about the actual cost of growing 100 pounds of potatoes, which can vary greatly geographically. For example, the number of pesticide applications and whether the crop is irrigated can change the production costs.
Because of the various differences in contract prices, it’s difficult to determine an average price. Other factors influence the prices, such as the quality of the load of potatoes and when it’s delivered.
“They still come back to a certain number needed to produce them,” Maatz said.
While the farmer’s paycheck has decreased, production costs have risen.
“Low potato prices from processors over a four-year period” led to the session, said Vernon Delong, executive director of Maine’s bargaining council and PMANA secretary. “They have decided to work together,” Delong said regarding the growers’ interest in sharing information.
Industry officials said that the relationship with the processors has been good and they’re not interested in “undermining” that association.
“We don’t have a lot of problems here [in Maine],” said Michael Corey, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, which represents the fresh, seed and processing segments of the industry.
Maine has a strict bargaining law where contract negotiations begin in January and February and are usually completed by April 1. There are few similar laws around the country, according to Delong.
Processing growers and executives plan to meet in July in Manitoba to formulate a plan to share information in anticipation of negotiating contracts for the 2001 crop.