WASHINGTON, Mar. 1, 2017 - American potato growers are still reeling from a soured trade deal with Mexico that could have meant an extra $300 million in annual sales South of the Border.

Thanks to NAFTA, Mexico is a free and open market for most U.S. commodities, with potatoes being a notable exception. Mexico partially opened its border to U.S. potatoes about 10 years ago. As an intermediate step, Mexico allowed in the American spuds, but only within 26 kilometers of the border. The measure was meant to lead to a full opening, but never did.

Then late last year, after months of negotiations, U.S. and Mexican officials finally reached a deal to open up Mexico completely to U.S. potatoes.

“We thought we were going to wrap this up,” said Michael Scuse, who was then acting deputy secretary for USDA. “We were very close to getting a deal done.” Scuse, now the commissioner of the Delaware Department of Agriculture, spoke to Agri-Pulse on the sidelines of USDA’s annual Outlook Forum last week.

Part of the deal involved Mexican avocados. In exchange for allowing greater access for U.S. potatoes, U.S. negotiators were promising the deal would help pave the way for an expansion of Mexican avocados into a guacamole-hungry market to the north, according to accounts from U.S. and Mexican government officials. A date – Jan. 18 – was even set for finalizing the agreement.

But it never happened. Two days before the planned signing, USDA officials got word from their Mexican counterparts. The National Federation of Mexican Potato Producers (CONPAPA) had filed a lawsuit to stop the deal.

“All of the sanitary and phytosanitary measures to allow U.S. potatoes into Mexico have been agreed to and are in the protocols,” one Mexican government source said. “Everything was set to move forward.”

Mexican potato farmers didn’t see it that way, though, said Scuse. CONPAPA was alleging there were still plant risks associated with U.S. potatoes, the source said.

One U.S. government official confirmed the legal fight, but stressed that it was generally seen as a smokescreen to try to keep out foreign competitors.

John Keeling, CEO of the National Potato Council, agrees.

“That’s the argument that the (Mexican) growers are making – that U.S. potatoes are a plant health risk – but that’s not what the experts say,” Keeling told Agri-Pulse. “It’s essentially the Mexican growers protecting their economic interests.”