Collins urges USDA to help America’s potato industry dispose of pandemic-related backlog

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) recently elevated the concerns and questions raised by representatives of America’s potato industry with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the industry, which has more than a billion pounds of fresh potatoes currently stuck in the supply chain due to the widespread closures of U.S. food establishments, hospitality businesses and schools, as well as the cancellation of large events, such as concerts, fairs and sporting events.

“The groups have put forth productive recommendations in regards to the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) that warrant your full consideration,” Sen. Collins wrote in a June 1 letter sent to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. “I am also requesting your assistance in helping to identify or make available USDA programs to help potato growers with the safe disposal of surplus crop.”

For instance, according to Sen. Collins’ letter, while the impact to Maine’s potato industry changes daily, it is estimated that more than 1,500,000 hundredweight (cwt) of processing potatoes from the 2019 crop may not be sold, representing more than 10 percent of the total Maine 2019 crop, which is valued at more than $15 million.

“If not adequately addressed, spoiled potatoes pose serious phytosanitary risks and environmental risks and have the potential to spawn fungal outbreaks that can harm future crop growth. We must ensure that the plight of the potato industry is not made worse by growers’ inability to appropriately dispose of the crop that was unable to be sold through no fault of their own,” wrote Sen. Collins, who urged Perdue to provide immediate technical and financial assistance to the industry.

“And, if adequate funding is not currently available for disposal services, to offer guidance on the level of funding that might be necessary to implement these critical activities,” the senator wrote.

Additionally, Sen. Collins urged the USDA to analyze food service sales, rather than just those in the retail and grocery sector, to ensure that potatoes are fully eligible and the minimum payment levels in each category are meaningful for growers.

“I am hopeful that the USDA will work closely with the U.S. potato industry to manage their backlog and to make certain that adequate direct relief is extended to producers,” Sen. Collins wrote. “I stand ready to work with you toward these goals and to address their urgent disposal needs.”