Born to Lead
Todd Michael’s first memory of working on the farm is driving the potato harvester at the age of 9. Not only did he learn the mechanics of growing potatoes early on, but he also developed a keen interest in the promotion of potatoes from his father, Doug.
During the United States Potato Board’s annual meeting in March in Colorado Springs, Colo., Michael was elected chairman, replacing Cheryl Koompin of American Falls, Idaho. This isn’t the first national leadership position for the 51-year-old Michael – in 2002 he served as president of the National Potato Council, 17 years after his father filled that same role.
Following his selection as chairman, Michael addressed the USPB members about how 40 years ago his father was one of the NPC committee members that lobbied Congress to pass the law authorizing the Potato Research and Promotion Act in an effort to stop the decline in potato consumption. The USPB would result from the legislation.
Michael and his two brothers, Kurt and Scott, grew up on the family farm in Urbana, Ohio. Together they have formed a family corporation, Michael Farms Inc. Prior to incorporating in 1980 the operation was called Michael and Sons.
Since incorporating they have grown the farming operation from 800 acres to 2,800 acres, with 500 acres of potatoes and the rest of the acreage divided among sweet corn, green beans and cabbage. Everything is grown for the fresh market.
“I do the potatoes,” Michael said, “and Scott does the other three vegetables. That’s the growing of it and the packing and the marketing. We’re kind of vertical. Where most farms are set up where someone does the farming, where someone does the marketing, we do all three in our discipline and our brother Kurt does all the farm maintenance. He keeps all the equipment and all that going and does a lot of field work.”
Michael said that he grows mostly round whites and some yellows and reds, and they pack potatoes year round.
He and his wife, Jill, have two children, Kyle and Kathy. Kyle has a diesel performance business in Urbana and Kathy works for John Deere in the dealer development and marketing division in Kansas City.
He said that Kyle and Kathy could return to the family business someday but he believes that it’s important for them to find a career outside the farm before coming back.
Issues at Hand
At the USPB’s annual meeting, Michael spoke about successful efforts by the USPB to reverse the trend in declining potato consumption.
“Over the past 40 years, the decline in potato demand continued,” he said, “but at a much slower pace. This past year that all changed for the first time ever, consumer demand for fresh potatoes increased.”
Michael cited the successful efforts by the industry and the USPB to improve consumer attitudes toward potatoes in the in the years since the introduction of the Atkins Diet in 2004.
Prior to the Atkins Diet negative consumer attitude to the potato was 18 percent. In 2004 negative consumer attitude increased to 33 percent and has taken seven years to return consumer attitudes to pre-Atkins Diet levels.
While industry leaders welcome this news of consumer attitudes returning to pre-Atkins numbers, Michael is wary of looming issues facing the industry.
“Acrylamide is an issue that is kind of out there,” he said. “The industry has to respond and so we’re putting a lot of effort forth.”
Michael said that there are multiple efforts at work on reducing acrylamide in all sectors of the industry.
“We formed a group to work on it from the breeding standpoint,” he said. “There is one group specializing in potato chip varieties and there’s another group specializing in processing varieties for frozen french fries and then we’re applied as a national industry to get some federal grant money.”
At the same time Michael welcomes the challenges facing the industry and call it a very exciting time to be leading the USPB.
“I think the most exciting is going to be what we can accomplish along with the fry alliance working on french fry demand,” he said.
“We’ve seen the numbers now coming out of Wendy’s when they took a bold step and redid their french fry and their marketing, reminding people that it is a potato and it is good for you. I think that’s a positive step there and we want to keep that momentum.”
Michael sees his role as USPB chairman as one of a consensus builder. He eschews a top-down leadership role.
“I’ve been in leadership positions before and I think my biggest strength is not what I can bring to the industry but what I can get the industry to bring out for themselves,” Michael said. “Not only do you get a better direction, a truer direction but you also get buy-in from the industry, we have to have the support of the industry.
“We’ve got 100 growers on our administrative committee and there is no way that any one or any group of them is going to sit there and say, ‘Hey, I know what we should do to help this industry.’ I’ve seen enough of that. A partial idea will be presented, then it’s built upon and its molded, it’s the positive side of committee,” Michael said.
Tim O’Connor, president and CEO of USPB, said Michael “brings a ton of experience and dedication” to the job.
“Todd is the potato industry,” O’Connor said. “He makes his living in a great family business. He has extended beyond his own farm and networked with other potato farmers and shippers and so he is really at the core of where the industry is today.”
Michael has been involved in promoting the potato industry for nearly 30 years. Obviously he does it because it helps his the bottom line in his business but he also said that he does it because he wants to give back to the industry and yet he believes that as much as he gives, he receives and he encourages growers, if they have the time and the time is right, to get involved in the USPB or the NPC.
“I was just a kid when I started attending the national meetings,” Michael said. “You know, I was 23 years old. I grew up in the national organization but the more I’ve gotten involved I really don’t think you can ever really give back. Because the more you try, the more you receive. There’s such a wealth of knowledge that’s learned from networking and understanding the whole industry versus the industry in your state.”