In the late 1990s and early 2000s, something unexpected happened to the potato industry. The Atkins diet caught fire and millions of American vowed to lose weight by, among other things, cutting carbohydrates out of their diets.
Those eating decisions – person by person – changed the image of the potato and affected an entire industry.
“That was the big rage, that really had dramatic effects for about a three- or four-year period,” said Chris Voigt, the executive director of Washington’s Potato Commission.
He wasn’t working in Washington at that time, but Voigt said there was an industrywide double-digit drop. Washington, to some extent, was insulated because 90 percent of the state’s potatoes are sold to processing plants.
“We’re starting to see a little bit of improvement on potatoes and carbs,” Voigt said.
A balancing act
Roughly 70 percent of the 10 billion pounds of potatoes Washington farmers grow each year are exported. So, the antitrade rhetoric of the November general elections worried most Washington potato farmers.
Since his election, President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, a decision the Washington State Potato Commission disagreed with. The main concern? U.S. potato competitors, like Canada, are in free trade agreements.
In place of broad free trade agreements, Chris Voigt, the executive director of the commission, said it’s imperative the U.S. create bilateral agreements with other nations. Voigt points to Japan, which is the biggest international buyer of Washington potatoes. And that has to happen quickly, he said.
“If we don’t have a free trade agreement in place Canada will,” he said.
At the same time Washington potato farmers worry about how Trump’s trade deals will affect their business, they’re promised deregulation will have a positive impact.
“Virtually everything we do there is some type of regulation involved,” Voigt said.
He hopes the Trump administration will critically examine the regulations to see what regulations aren’t “serving a useful purpose anymore.”
The two biggest challenges facing Washington potato farmers in the next decade are trade and global instability, Voigt said.
“Any time there is global instability it can really disrupt international trade,” he said.
On a more positive note, Voigt said potato farmers are turning their attention to soil science.
“Soils are kind of the next unknown frontier for agriculture to take a look at,” he said.
Better understanding of soils may allow farmers to produce higher yields while also maintaining soil health.
60 days of potatoes
Voigt said that after eating nothing but potatoes for two months, he’d never felt better.
Voigt started the diet in 2010 to draw attention to federal proposals to bar or limit potatoes in some programs, arguing that potatoes are high in nutrients.
“The challenge was I couldn’t really add stuff to it,” he said.
His publicity stunt drew international attention. Voigt started getting “potatoes from all over the country.” He tried eating them all different ways, including juicing purple potatoes (which he doesn’t recommend) and making potato ice cream (also not great, he said).
So, mostly he ate mashed potatoes.
The day Voigt ended his diet, he underwent a physical. His weight dropped from 197 pounds to 176 pounds and his cholesterol level fell 67 points. At the time, Voigt said he and his doctor were both shocked.