Being a leader in the potato industry isn’t a new or unusual role for Dan Lake. It’s a role the 2015 president of the National Potato Council (NPC) he is well known for across the Big Sky state of Montana.
His leadership capabilities are extraordinary,” said Nina Zidack, the director of the Montana seed certification program at Montana State University (MSU). “He’s been cultivating all these different programs at the local, state and national level,” Zidack said.
Zidack has known Lake since their college days at MSU in the early 80s. He earned an agronomy degree in 1987.
“He’s just been plugging away in the trenches for his entire career,” Zidack said.
“I can’t even name all the different committees that Dan has served in,” she said. “From the ground level all the way up, Dan has been very involved in serving our industry and greater agricultural community.”
Being the oldest of four sons of Don and Bernadine Lake, one might argue that it’s a role he was born into.
Together, he and his three brothers, David, Pat and Tim run the family farm, in a valley in the northwest corner of Ronan, Montana, with the Mission Mountains on the east and the Salish Mountains on the west. Flathead Lake and Glacier National Park lie north of Ronan.
The entire farming operation is about 2,800 acres. They produce roughly 500 acres of seed potatoes with the rest in rotational crops, mostly small grains and some peas.
They each take on different responsibilities running the family enterprise, with Dan being responsible for marketing and oversight of the early generation seed programs for the labs and greenhouse.
David is responsible for the farm’s spray programs for all crops as well as the irrigation infrastructure. Pat takes care of planting grain and potatoes and coordinating the grain harvest as well as marketing the wheat.
The youngest brother, Tim, is the farm’s agronomist. He plans out all the field work, conducts soil testing and takes care of nutrient management. He and Dan coordinate the potato harvest.
“They’re basically fulfilling my dream to improve the farm,” their father, Don Lake, said of his four sons’ achievements on the farm.
Dan said that they grow mostly Ranger Russet, Russet Burbank and Umatilla Russets. They also grow a few Dark Red Norlands and Yukon Golds, mostly to satisfy the garden seed market in Montana so as to keep their seed from contamination from out of state seed. Most of the seed makes its way to the Columbia Basin. Dan estimates that maybe 10 percent goes to growers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan.
Dan and his wife, Jan, are the parents of four children. Beau, the oldest, works as a private engineering consultant, Brianna is a fourth-grade teacher, Bridgette divides her workload on the farm and with her husband on their cattle ranch and Brittnee is a dental assistant.
Jan manages the tissue culture lab and the greenhouse facilities in addition to growing potato tissue culture and maintaining reserve stocks.
The origins for the tissue culture lab began in the late ’70s, when Dan suggested to his father that they begin growing their own stock.
“When I was about 19, 20, we started a stem cut program to produce our own nuclear seed,” he said.
“I remember the crops from that first production were spotlessly clean and I mean everything was just perfect,” Lake said.
When he started studying agronomy at MSU he worked in the certification lab under Mike Sun, the director of the certification program.
“We started to work with tissue culture at the certification lab and, boy, this was a slick way of doing stuff,” Lake said. “In the mid ’80s we set up our own tissue culture lab on the farm.”
They started small. The original lab was in a bedroom and Dan built a lot of the equipment.
“As we kind of morphed on we got the idea that we ought to grow these nuclear potato plants in the greenhouse,” Dan said.
Today, they have a new lab facility and multiple greenhouses. In addition to the potatoes they do a lot of mint work to keep the lab busy year round.
“We’re a major supplier of nuclear mint stock to the nation,” he said.
Lake said he has two policy agendas he has set for himself as he settles into his year-long term as NPC president. One is comprised of four national issues facing the potato industry and one that he has set as a personal goal.
He and John Keeling, the executive vice-president and CEO of the NPC, have been discussing the four national issues at the winter conferences.
The first issue is specialty crop research initiative grants through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture that provides funding for state potato breeding programs. For the past 25 years the funding has been earmarked in the appropriations legislation but that method of funding could be curtailed by the Republican majority in the Senate.
Second on the list is truck weight reform legislation. NPC supports efforts to increase truck weights to 97,000 pounds. Keeling and Lake argue that with the increased truck weight the payloads would require a fifth axle, increasing both cost efficiency and highway safety by reducing the amount of truck miles driven.
Pollinator health is the third issue the NPC is tackling. The impact of neonicotinoids on the nation’s declining bee population has been vigorously debated since the advent of colony collapse disorder was first identified in 2006. The NPC is concerned that the EPA is blaming neonicotinoids when there are other factors at play in this issue.
“We just want to encourage the EPA to follow the science and to stay out of the political and emotional direction that this thing seems to be pulled in,” Lake said.
Finally, the NPC endorses a federal voluntary labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods. Whether the label is to identify GM or non-GM foods remains to be determined in the marketplace but the NPC does not want to see a statewide or countrywide collection of laws without any consistency in the regulations.
Dan Lake’s personal platform is to increase awareness of the NPC among growers across the nation.
“The NPC is very important to the industry and the work that gets done sometimes isn’t communicated as well as it should be to our grassroots supporters,” he said. “Unless you’re involved in the council you really don’t know about the council and you don’t appreciate the council.”
He said that he has challenged his executive committee to have a greater presence at local meetings and to help spread the NPC message.
“It’s so important that we, as a potato industry, have a voice in Washington, D.C. and in the regulatory and legislative process,” Dan said of the role the NPC plays for the potato industry.