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Potatoes as a grain? Tasty tubers again the target of reclassification topic

There is a push by some groups to reclassify the potato as a grain – a notion that some producers find starch raving mad.

Potatoes
In this file photo, Rocio Serraco, left, and Lorenzo Jaime remove dirt clods from a conveyor as potatoes are elevated into a warehouse at Ryan Potato Company in East Grand Forks. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.
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GRAND FORKS – The potato – one of the country’s most in-demand commodities – is known by several nicknames: murphy, spud, tater and tuber among them.

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A new event this year includes a Town Square pep rally scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 28, kicking off UND's Homecoming Week.

It’s the namesake of the annual Potato Bowl, which will be played today when UND hosts Northern Iowa at the Alerus Center. Prior to the game, thousands will line the streets of Grand Forks to witness the annual Potato Bowl parade. It also is an economic driver in the northern Red River Valley.

And whether baked, boiled, fried, hashed, mashed, roasted or scalloped, the potato, produced in different colors and formations, is simply known as a vegetable.

Donavon Johnson, president of Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, wants to keep it that way. There is a push by some groups, however, to reclassify the potato as a grain – a notion that some producers find starch raving mad.

Johnson, in an email to the Herald, said protecting the potato as a vegetable is the right thing to do for both consumer and producer alike, noting unnecessary confusion and chaos would arise if reclassification occurs.

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“First,” he said of the reason to defend the tuber as a vegetable, “so as not to confuse the consumer. There are many additional nutrients in a potato similar to vegetables. … Second, USDA has classified potatoes as a vegetable, making the potato eligible for numerous programs, grants, assistance, etc., through federal programs for vegetables. Reclassifying potatoes as something other than a vegetable would cause major disruption to these federal resources.”

Johnson said that according to both consumer sentiment and purchases, potatoes are the No. 1 vegetable sold and consumed in the U.S. The push by some to reclassify the spud has been ongoing for years, but the topic remains a hot potato in the industry, especially as a new farm bill is being constructed, according to Kam Quarles, executive director of the National Potato Council in Washington, D.C. He said he doesn’t believe the push will sprout at the legislative levels, but it is something the council is watching.

Not surprisingly, the push to reclassify is mostly for monetary reasons.

“It's come up in various places over the past few years,” Quarles told the Herald in a phone interview. “I think some folks have decided that since potatoes are such a substantial player in the vegetable category, if we can move them out of being a vegetable, there's going to be more federal money in the vegetable programs for whomever is left; they're going to have more money.”

Those who clamor for change at times tout nutritional reasons behind the push, but to Quarles that doesn’t make much sense, because “the nutrients you find in potatoes are directly aligned with what you find in fruits and vegetables,” he said. “They contain vitamin C, potassium, those kinds of things. It's not what you would find in the grains and so that, as a technical matter, doesn't make a lot of sense to us.”

He said a broader view helps put the reclassification push in better perspective.

“You kind of have to take a step back and look at the whole constellation when folks are making these pushes in the specialty crop world as we try to construct a new farm bill,” he said, a package of legislation passed about every five years.

That constellation resembles a tater that has grown too many eyes: Some in the natural stone industry, for instance, want stones to be reclassified as a specialty crop, “because there’s money there,” he said; some who work with wild rice, a grain, want it reclassified as a vegetable, also because of the money in that category. The latest farm bill, signed in 2018, will expire in September 2023.

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“These games are constantly being played. Activist groups get involved, or constituent groups who feel it is to their advantage,” Quarles said. “Obviously, it's our job to defend the interests of the potato industry.”

Eric Halverson, CEO of Black Gold Farms based in Grand Forks but which also has locations in other states, echoed similar sentiments.

“I don't know if it’s silly or not. It feels a little bit like trying to maneuver through a system,” he said. “I think you have well-intended people that maybe we disagree with. … Working within a system to reclassify the potato as a grain, I think they see that as a way to make an impact within the current dietary guidelines from the government.”

But, he added, despite these efforts – and fad diets that criticize the starchy tuber – the industry has to take a stand.

“We can't be afraid to advocate for ourselves, because potatoes should be a good part of a complete diet,” Halverson said. “Like a lot of things, if you put enough fat on them they’re going to be bad for you. But that's not the way it has to be and there's no reason to kick them out.

“It just doesn't make sense to me to update them as a grain; potato is not a grain,” Halverson said. “A grain is pretty specific how it grows.”

Halverson said he respects people on the other side of the argument, but said that, in his opinion, reclassifying the potato would have more negatives than benefits, including harshly impacting the country’s food-assistance programs.

Worst case scenario, Quarles in D.C. said: If reclassification were to occur, it would cause a number of unnecessary challenges, starting with the food services industry, especially those that provide meals to schools.

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Eliminating potatoes from the school menu would take away the credit school meal programs currently receive for serving them as a vegetable.

“They’d have to go out and get other vastly more expensive and less flexible items to fill that void,” Quarles said. “It wouldn’t be great for the school food service professionals. All of a sudden they'd have a budget problem and they'd have a menu problem.”

Likewise, he continued, the potato industry itself would be heavily impacted, with trickle-down impacts felt elsewhere, because it wouldn't have access “to fundamental federal research dollars that are really going to propel our industry forward.”

He said the industry has made good use of such monies over the past several decades, but going forward it would have to fight for those dollars among wheat growers and rice producers.

“We no longer would have access to specialty crop programs,” Quarles said. “Similarly, international trade programs, such as pest and disease programs, would be kicked out of all of those federal dollars that we, as a potato industry, are really a leader in because of our broad political reach, our broad geographic production areas. We were the leader in getting those programs built, and we would no longer have access to the house that we built along with our colleagues in the specialty crop world.”

Of all the many different varieties of potato on the market today, it is the “vegetable” kind Quarles likes best.

“I’ll give my smart-aleck response,” he said of the idea to reclassify the spud. “There are numerous ideas in Washington, D.C., and a very limited number of them are good. This one is not one of them. From a political perspective, from a technical perspective, and from a constituent perspective – kids in school meal programs, all those kinds of things – it is an utterly terrible idea.”

The author of this piece, Andrew Weeks, is editor of Prairie Business magazine.

Related Topics: BUSINESS
Andrew Weeks is an award-winning journalist who has reported for a number of newspapers and magazines. He currently is the editor of Prairie Business, the premier business magazine of the northern plains. The magazine covers various industries and business topics in the Dakotas and western Minnesota.
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