Bob Bartlett, the father of Bartlett Farms' owner David Bartlett, helps sort rocks and tops from the potatoes at the farm's potato house in Littleton in September 2020. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

The Mexican Supreme Court unexpectedly voted on Wednesday to overturn a 2017 lower court decision banning U.S. fresh potato sales in most of Mexico. This unanimous decision ends a decades-long legal battle and opens trade doors for U.S. potato growers.

While it’s unlikely potatoes grown in Aroostook County will make the several-thousand-mile trip into Mexico, it’s still good news for Maine’s growers because western farmers such as those in Idaho and Colorado who market on the east coast now likely will start moving their crops south.

“There is a huge demand for U.S. potatoes in Mexico and moving western potatoes offshore is a big deal for Maine growers,” National Potato Council President Dominic LaJoie said on Thursday. LaJoie is also a Van Buren potato grower and he co-owns LaJoie LLC.

This week’s decision comes at a particularly good time, with potato growers coming off a lean 2020 following last year’s pandemic restrictions. Just when Maine growers were getting ready to market their 2019 crop, everything closed down, including restaurants, schools and other food service operations.

“There was no demand for potatoes,” Executive Director of the Maine Potato Board

Donald E. Flannery said, adding that it was a challenging time. “In Maine, we saw about a 1,000-acre decrease.”

With an average acre yield of 44,000 pounds, that’s a lot of potatoes.

Still, there is a bright side to the restrictions, because more people were eating at home and buying more potatoes in retail stores. So, growers changed their focus. And now with the Mexican court decision opening up the market even more, it will really help, Flannery said.

With this decision, U.S. growers can supply a wide variety of fresh, high-quality potatoes to Mexico, including russets, reds, yellows, whites, fingerlings and chipping potatoes year-round. And it is that year-round consistency in demand that will help Maine growers, LaJoie said.

The National Potato Council and others working toward getting fresh U.S. potatoes back into Mexico did not expect the supreme court decision, even though in February the supreme court released a draft decision in the U.S. growers’ favor.

“We asked every week, and we were told, ‘no decision,’ ‘no decision’,” LaJoie said. “Then all of a sudden, a unanimous decision.”

In 2011, the Mexican government agreed to allow U.S. potatoes full access to their market beginning in May 2014. But Mexico’s potato growers cartel, CONPAPA, sued the Mexican government, claiming Mexican regulators have no authority to determine what agricultural imports enter the country.

Nonetheless, the U.S. was still allowed to export potatoes along a narrow 16-mile strip along the U.S./Mexico border. And in this small area alone, Mexico is the second largest market for fresh potato exports accounting for 106,000 metric tons valued at $60 million in 2020.

The U.S. potato industry estimates that access to the entire country for fresh U.S. potatoes will provide a market potential of $200 million per year, in five years.

The supreme court decision rejected CONPAPA’s arguments, affirming that the Mexican government does have the authority to issue regulations about the importation of agricultural and food products, including fresh U.S. potatoes.

“[Wednesday’s] decision by Mexico’s Supreme Court is welcome and overdue. For decades, U.S. potato growers have been unfairly denied access to the Mexican market, and this ruling represents a major first step toward reversing that ban,” U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said. “I will continue advocating on behalf of Maine’s hardworking potato farmers to ensure that this access is fully restored, and that our Mexican counterparts honor their commitments made in the USMCA.”

It may take a few more months before all regulatory hurdles are crossed.

“I’d say it will be three to six months tops before we start moving potatoes in,” LaJoie said. “If not, we will keep the pressure up.”

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Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Presque Isle area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the...