Combines, pickups and other farm equipment lined the parking lot at the Hermiston Conference Center this week to remind participants and drivers-by about the 37th annual Farm Fair and Trade Show.

Inside the center, the topic of conversation and instruction Wednesday centered around one of the area’s largest crops — the potato.

“Potatoes remain America’s favorite vegetable,” said Marry Conners, a U.S. Potato Board representative. “Research has shown that consumers are trying to eat more fresh potatoes, but life in America is very fast-paced and we need to find ways to get that meal on the table in 30 minutes.”

Broken into two sessions, the potato production seminar spanned a full day Wednesday and covered topics from specific diseases to new spud varieties.

In her presentation at the Hermiston Farm Fair, Conners said of every 10 rows of potatoes harvested, 1 1/2 will be exported.

“U.S. frozen potatoes have been used in many unique ways in foreign markets — from donuts to Asian noodles to, most recently, Japanese beer,” she said. “It’s a huge market.”

While the foreign potato market continues to expand, potatoes remain a staple in the United States. The Farm Fair kitchens demonstrated the power of potatoes as workers from ConAgra Foods and Hermiston Foods kept french fries, potato poppers and soup rolling out to hungry participants.

Early estimates predict about 250 people attended the first day of the Hermiston Farm Fair.

Bill Brewer, executive director of the Oregon Potato Commission, talked about his group and its goals to promote spuds. The commission is a group of 10 people appointed by the state agriculture director to focus on legislative issues, trade issues, research, public relations and consumer research and education. Over the past year, many of the commission’s activities have focused on educating the public on the benefits of potatoes and where they come from, Brewer said.

“We don’t have a very big budget, but we try to promote Oregon potatoes and potatoes in general,” Brewer said.

Last year, the commission focused on events with children, including partnering with Radio Disney for 30 events specifically geared at the younger generation. To supplement that focus, the commission developed a mascot — a baby red potato named Rosso Bambino.

The spud mascot even attended the Columbia River Power Marathon earlier this fall.

“There’s a lot of people from around the U.S. coming to that event and it gives us a chance to talk to those people about potatoes and where they are produced,” he said, pointing out many people outside of the Pacific Northwest don’t realize the amount of potatoes grown and processed in the Beaver State.

In 2006, Oregon potato farmers harvested 35,000 acres of potatoes, yielding more than 1.8 billion pounds of the vegetable, according to the Oregon Potato Commission’s website, About 75 percent of Oregon potatoes are processed into food products — such as french fries, hash browns and chips — and nearly 25 percent of all french fries exported from the U.S. come from Oregon.

Northwest potatoes have been getting international attention this fall. Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington Potato Commission, garnered international media coverage for his 60-day, all-potato diet to promote the nutritional value of spuds. He was in New York City on Thursday for an appearance on the Today Show on NBC.


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