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Sherwood's Amstad Produce pushes for more overseas markets



GAZETTE PHOTO: RAY PITZ - Jim Cramer, director of sales and marketing for Amstad Produce of Sherwood, points to aspects of the farm's potato production process to U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., during a tour of the farm on May 8.U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., got a crash course in potato growing and production Monday morning with a visit to Amstad Produce in Sherwood in an effort to see how the business would benefit with more overseas markets.

Along the way, she toured the business’ processing plant, checked out potatoes in the field and even got her first chance ever to drive a monster-sized John Deere tractor. The farm, located off of Scholls-Sherwood Road, is the largest and longest-running potato operation in Washington County.

A Congressional vote on the Trade Promotion Authority, a tool that in the past has supported more U.S. jobs, could be voted on in the U.S. House of Representatives as soon as next week. Bonamici has come out in support of the so-called fast-track trade bill.

During her Sherwood visit, Bonamici talked to Amstad Produce’s Jeff Urbach, co-owner and president, and Jim Cramer, director of sales and marketing, “to find out what expanded markets mean to them.”

What she discovered was that the American market for tubers is down.

“U.S. demands have been in decline for potatoes, and consolidation of major (supermarket) chains continuously makes it difficult for the family farm to compete on a national level,” said Urbach.

What that means is finding new foreign markets for the farm’s product.

GAZETTE PHOTO: RAY PITZ - U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., holds up a potato she picked up from the 500 acres of potatoes planted just off of Scholls-Sherwood Road on June 8 as Jeff Urbach, co-owner and president of Amstad Produce, looks on. Bonamici was in the area asking Urbach and other business owners what expanded markets would mean for them.In fact, Urbach was fresh off the plane from a trade mission to the Dominican Republic and Panama, saying that many foreign markets want produce from the United States.

“They want American,” said Urbach. “It means food quality. It means safety.”

Urbach said that Amstad Produce, which grows its russets in Eastern Oregon and its red and yellow potatoes in Sherwood, had its best month ever in February due to an increasing export market.

That announcement, made to employees by Cramer several months ago, brought a round of applause.

“It almost brings you to tears when you hear them do that,” Urbach pointed out.

While potato farmers typically see slowdowns at certain times of the year, exports mean that Amstad Produce’s 70 employees (a number that can balloon to 100 at peak times), can stay employed for longer periods of time.

Also, increased exports mean employees get overtime, said Urbach.

“Now, because we do more exports we’re able to hire more,” said Urbach.

Cramer said potato exports are a “critical part of our portfolio.”

During Monday’s tour, Bonamici witnessed the processing, storage and distributing portions of the expansive farm, which also grows clover and wheat.

GAZETTE PHOTO: RAY PITZ - Jim Cramer, right, of Amstad Produce, shows U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., the box with an American flag that has proved popular in Asian markets. Because of the credibility American products have in some foreign markets, both Urbach and Cramer wanted to make sure they had something eye-catching and reassuring for their Asian market. As a result, an American flag is stamped on boxes headed to the Far East.

“Jeff and I definitely designed this for the Asian market,” Cramer said as he proudly held up a box that’s been received extremely well in the Asian countries.

According to Bonamici’s website, “Expanding the market for U.S. goods will help businesses grow in this country. A trade agreement done right will not only make it easier to sell American-made goods, it will level the playing field by reducing tariffs that currently make it difficult to compete in many of the world’s markets.”

While the Trade Promotion Authority isn’t a trade agreement itself, it establishes requirements for negotiation of a trade agreement, according to Bonamici’s office.

Meanwhile, Urbach said he was pleased to have Bonamici tour the produce operation, noting that in the farm’s 53 years of existence they’ve never had a visit by a member of the U.S. Congress.

Still, it’s not his first brush with high-ranking politicians. Several months ago, Urbach began receiving phone calls and emails from the White House. Initially thinking they were a joke, Urbach ended up sitting behind President Barack Obama at Nike in May when he arrived in town to promote the Pacific Rim trade agreement.

GAZETTE PHOTO: RAY PITZ - U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., takes the helm of a large John Deere tractor during a tour of Amstad Produce on June 8.

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