Taking the Wheel
The pendulum has swung from the east to the west with the election of Randy Mullen of Pasco, Wash., as 2013 National Potato Council (NPC) president. With his election at the NPC’s annual meeting in Las Vegas in January Mullen succeeds Steve Crane, of Exeter, Maine.
Mullen’s involvement with the NPC began more than 15 years ago. Previously, he had been involved with the USPB and the Washington State Potato Commission.
I really feel that the NPC is the one that really gets things done politically,” Mullen said.
With his NPC responsibilities requiring more of his time, Mullen has come to rely on his children from his first marriage to help with the farming operation.
His daughter and son-in-law, Randi and Mark Hammer, work as office manager and farm manager.
Nearly three years ago, when Mullen’s previous farm manager was involved in a bad motorcycle accident, Mark took the job.
“He had no farm experience,” said Mullen. “He kind of got thrown into it the job but he’s really stepped up to the plate. (He is) very organized, a very good boss for everybody.”
His son Ryan also works on the farm and youngest son Gates is studying agriculture economics and works on the farm during the summer.
Along with the farm and NPC duties, Randy and his wife, Tracy, have adopted four children from Haiti and Guatemala. Dounelson, 11, and Julia, 7, came from the same Haitian orphanage. Gus, 9, and his biological sister, Sophia, 6, came from Guatemala.
“It takes a lot of time but I’ve got my family working at home and they’re doing a wonderful job. When I leave I know that our best interests are being looked after,” Mullen said of balancing his NPC duties and his time away from home.
Mullen’s family has been farming in the Columbia Basin since the late 1940s, when the Bureau of Reclamation held a land lottery for World War II veterans. His father, John, drew lot number seven in Block one, the first irrigation Block to receive water in the Columbia Basin Irrigation District, and they’ve been farming in the basin ever since.
“It’s kind of a little microclimate here in this Block one area, so it’s the earliest harvest area in the state,” Mullen said describing the area that his father first farmed.
“We start harvesting, generally the last week of July. We’re the very first area to get water from the South Columbia Basin Irrigation District,” Mullen said.
From that lucky number seven lot of almost 70 years ago, today Mullen Farms has grown into an enterprise of roughly 1,500 acres, a figure that varies from year to year.
“We generally raise about 1,000 acres of potatoes,” Mullen said. The rest of the acres are comprised of field corn, sweet corn, timothy hay and onions.
Almost 100 percent of the potatoes Mullen grows are for the fresh market. Norkotahs represent the majority, along with Potandon varieties such as Gold Dust and Klondike Rose, Mullen said.
Like all fresh stock growers Mullen is waiting for the 2013 market to rebound. He expressed a combination of frustration with the market and concern for the solvency of growers.
“I’m certainly hoping to see this market come up,” Mullen said. “I can’t predict this market, I don’t think anyone can, but I’m certainly hoping that this pipeline will clean out sooner than everybody expects and that we can have a decent price going into the new crop for 2013.
“When you flood that market it’s going to eliminate a lot of growers for the next year,” Mullen said. “We’re just hoping that a lot of people that raised extra acres of potatoes this year will move to corn or wheat some of the other profitable commodities next year.”
Mullen knows the boom and bust cycles of the potato market all too well.
“In 2000 I sold the majority of my potato crop for less than $20 a ton. In 2001, we got about $220 a ton and there was only about a 10 percent difference in supply,” he said.
One potential outlet for U.S. potatoes that Mullen hopes to secure this year is open access beyond the 26-kilometer zone in Mexico.
“I think the largest issue we’re dealing with right now is Mexico,” Mullen said of his new presidency. “We’ve hit some road bumps. I don’t think those bumps are insurmountable. I’m still optimistic that we’re going to start getting potatoes into Mexico.”
The current impasse was created when Mexico’s secretariat of agriculture introduced potato risk mitigation measures on Nov. 20, 2012. The new phytosanitary regulations effectively halted designs to open the whole of Mexico to U.S. potatoes.
Mullen said that open access will take time to procure and the potato industry must manage its crop carefully if and when the Mexican government agrees to open their country to U.S. potato imports.
“It’s very political now and it could get even more political,” Mullen said about current negotiations with the Secretariats of Agriculture, Economy and Con Papa, the Mexico growers’ organization.
Mullen cited what happened to the U.S. apple industry’s access to Mexico as a lesson for the potato industry to heed.
“They shipped so many apples down there that they destroyed their (Mexico’s) market and Mexico shut them off. (They) said that we were dumping our apples down there and because of that they lost market down there for eight years,” Mullen said.
Mullen is cautiously optimistic about future trade south of the border but he advises growers and shippers to be very diplomatic and respectful of the Mexican market.
“I think we’ve got to manage the market,” Mullen said. “We’ve got to be very careful not to ship cheap potatoes down there to destroy their market.”
Mullen said that another objective he has set for his tenure is to improve grower involvement in the Potato D.C. Fly-In.
“What we do in D.C., that’s what the NPC is all about,” Mullen said. “It’s the most important thing we do. We feel that the more grower involvement that we can get back in D.C. the more effective we will be with our congressmen, with the agencies (and) the EPA. We’ve got to get back to D.C. and tell our story.”