China moves closer to buying Alaska potatoes

Posted: Friday, July 28, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A team of Chinese scientists will be headed here later this summer to study Alaska seed and table potatoes.

That's the first step toward certifying the crop for export to one of the world's largest markets, Agriculture Undersecretary Michael Dunn says.

Trade officials say that's one of several agreements reached between the U.S. and China during a four day summit held at Fairbanks this week.

Still elusive is the biggest prize -- agreement by China to import American whole-leaf tobacco. Chinese officials fear the blue mold that plagues American crops could infect stocks there.

While tests have proved conclusively that one type of spores cannot survive the drying and curing process, scientists cannot show that for a second class of spores, said John Thaw, director of the Asia plant disease issues for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

''We've been stalemated ever since.''

Alaska's disease-free potatoes apparently made for easier negotiations.

''This signals to us that (the Chinese) are serious and willing to put in the investment,'' said Dunn, who was in town for the final two days of the talks. ''The Chinese are looking very, very favorably for us to ship more potatoes into China.''

Although such a decision could be years in the making, it would be a coup for University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Jenifer Huang McBeath, who has worked for years to certify that Alaska's potatoes are virus- and fungus-free, and the state Division of International Trade and Market Development, which brought the talks to Fairbanks and helped get potatoes on the annual meeting's agenda.

It also would be a boon to the state's potato farmers, who plant from 800- to 1,000 acres of seed and table potatoes a year.

''If we could come up with an agreement, it would probably (increase) 10-fold the number of potatoes sold in Alaska,'' said Charles ''Andy'' Andrews, a Delta Junction farmer who planted 10 acres of potatoes this year.

''It would be a great day for the potato crop.''

The seed potato market is a tough one, Andrews said. The Dutch hope to sell to China, as do potato-growing states in the Lower 48. But Alaska's geography and climate place the state at an advantage. The Chinese do not want to risk importing potatoes from regions that have experienced outbursts of late blight, a fungus that attacks potatoes. Crops from Alaska's Interior never have experienced that malady.

''That's our ace in the hole,'' Andrews told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

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