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Published June 27, 2011, 05:24 AM

National stage for spuds

Wherever you go in America, you’ll find potatoes — in some shape or form — on dining room tables and restaurant menus.

Wherever you go in America, you’ll find potatoes — in some shape or form — on dining room tables and restaurant menus.

Some of the people most responsible for potatoes’ continued popularity and availability gathered last week in Grand Forks, N.D., to fine-tune their industry’s future.

Despite a few challenges — including a government plan to limit spuds’ role in school lunchrooms — the potato industry’s future is bright, officials say.

“No other crop can produce as much food per square meter as potatoes. And we’re learning more about them every year,” says Charlie Higgins, an agronomist with the U.S. Potato Board.

Higgins was among several hundred potato growers and industry officials from around the country who attended the National Potato Council’s summer meeting June 21 to 24 in Grand Forks.

Justin Dagen, a Karlstad, Minn., farmer, is the current president of the National Potato Council. The organization typically holds its summer meeting near the home of its grower/president.

The Washington-based National Potato Council — a unified voice for potato growers nationwide on legislative, regulatory, environmental and trade issues — promotes increased profitability for growers and greater consumption of potatoes.

The Red River Valley of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota is the nation’s leading producer of red potatoes and the only region that produces in volume for the chip, fresh, seed and process markets.

Building a life

in potatoes

Jeremie Pavelski grew up with potatoes on his family farm.

Alicia Williams, his fiancee, recently began learning the potato business “from the ground up.”

The two — who attended the National Potato Council summer meeting — plan to make a lifetime career in potatoes. They hope to be followed in the potato business by the children they expect to someday have.

Pavelski, a fifth-generation potato farmer, is part of Heartland Farms in Hancock, Wis. The farm operates in five Wisconsin counties and sells chip potatoes to Frito-Lay and several regional manufacturers.

Pavelski, 29, says the family operation has “a lot of tradition. You hear all the war stories from my dad, my grandfather, my great-grandfather.

“And there’s pride in what you do — we’re been growing for Frito-Lay for over 50 years. We’re really based on long-term relationships,” he says.

Pavelski, who has a computer networking degree, says farming also interests him because of all the technology used in agriculture.

Heartland Farms divides its operation into the farming side and business management side. Pavelski works on the latter.

Williams, 26, began working on the farm four months ago and has been involved in “everything. They send me out to the field and learn from the ground up. I enjoy learning all aspects of it so I know what everyone is talking about.”

Hancock, in central Wisconsin, about 1½ miles north of Madison, has sandy soil well suited to growing potatoes, Pavelski says.

Heartland Farms also raises corn, peas and beans in rotation with potatoes. The other crops are sold to area food processors.

They thought what?

Many people are disturbingly ill-informed about agriculture, Pavelski and Williams say.

They point to a Heartland Farms’ promotional event at the Wisconsin State Fair as an example.

“We actually had people coming up to us and say, ‘You are not real farmers. Real farmers do not exist. You’re an actor. Potatoes are made in a manufacturing facility.’ They actually thought the potato (not the chip) was made in a factory,” he says.

Even more startling, “We had pictures and a video running of the (potato) harvest. And people were saying those had to be fake,” Williams says.

“We really do need to find a way to educate people about agriculture, Pavelski says.

That education is essential to give future generations a crack of their own at farming, he says.

“When we have kids, we want them to have the same opportunties to come back to farm that we do,” he says.

Well-traveled

in his field

Higgins, 64, has spent 30 years in his industry and has worked with spuds in every potato-growing state.

He plays a number of roles in the potato industry in addition to his work with the U.S. Potato Board, the nation’s potato marketing organization.

Asked for a business card, he pulls out one that identifies him as senior agronomist for Navajo Mesa Farms (“Specializing in Chipping Potatoes”) in Farmington, N.M.

“I have a few different” business cards, he says with a smile.

The potato industry would be helped tremendously if genetically modified potatoes were commercially viable, Higgins says.

GM potatoes would greatly reduce the amount of chemicals used in growing potatoes and benefit everyone, he says.

Researchers have made big strides with GM potatoes, and genetically modified spuds would be hugely popular with growers. But major companies such as McDonald’s refuse to use GM potatoes, so farmers have no market for them, he says.

Another priority for the U.S. potato industry is selling more seed potatoes to foreign customers, especially ones in the tropics, he says.

“It’s another source of income” for U.S. growers, he says.

When asked what he enjoys most about potatoes, Higgens recalls a conversation he had with a farmer three decades ago.

“He (the farmer) told me had been growing potatoes for 50 years and that he had learned more about them in the past year than in all the previous years,” Higgins says.

“I’m learning more about potatoes every year, too. So is the industry,” he says.

Big, but still family

Jason Walther, 35, is part of a sprawling farm operation that stretches most of the way from America’s northern to southern boundary

Walter Farms, of which he’s a third-generation operator, raises more than 8,000 acres of commercial and seed potatoes for the potato chip and fresh table stock markets.

The company is based in Three Rivers, Mich., in the southwestern part of the state, where the majority of its acres are farmed. But it also raises potatoes in northern Michigan, Indiana/Illinois and northern and central Florida.

Don’t be misled by the size of Walter Farms, says Jason Walter, who attended the National Potato Council summer meeting.

“Yes, it’s a big operation. But we’re still a family business,” says Walter, who notes than a number of family members are involved in it.

USDA proposal unwelcome

Like other U.S. potato growers, Walter is concerned by a proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture limit on the amount of potatoes than can be included in school menus.

USDA would allow no more than one cup of starchy vegetables, including potatoes, to be served per week.

Walter and other spud growers say the proposal makes no sense scientifically or nutritionally and that it would increase the cost of feeding students.

“We’ve had local (school nutritionists in southwestern Michigan) call us and tell us this is a bad idea. They ask what they can do to stop it; we tell them to contact the politicians,” Walter says.

Potato growers have won an important skirmish, though the final outcome is uncertain.

Earlier in June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill directing USDA to issue food standards that don’t increase the cost of providing school menus.

The current proposal on food standards would increase the cost to schools by $6.8 billion over five years, with most of the increased cost resulting from the limitation on potatoes and other starchy vegetables, according to information from the National Potato Council.

Debate on the issue now shifts to the U.S. Senate.

The potato industry also is concerned that Americans are eating fewer potatoes at home.

A survey by the U.S. Potato Board found that Americans an average ate potatoes 79 times at home in 2000. That number trended lower during the decade, falling to 67 in 2009.

Walter says other, more recent statistics provide a more optimistic outlook on consumption.

The potato industry will overcome the challenges that come its way, he says.

“This is a strong industry with very good people. Our future is bright,” he says.

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