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Idaho grower is potato council’s 2008 president

The days are getting longer in Idaho and the snow is melting. Spring planting is just around the corner. It’s the prelude to the start of the busiest time of year for farmers.

Richard Polatis’ days are divided into preparing for the coming potato season, monitoring world grain prices for his grain elevator business and working on his responsibilities as the new president of the National Potato Council (NPC).

Polatis has been growing potatoes in Idaho’s Bingham County for 38 years. He and his older brother, Dan, formed a partnership in 1970. They started with 700 acres, some of it rented, and grew from there.

"Originally, we were going to start with 300 and then we took in another brother," Polatis said.

The other brother would eventually opt out of the business, and Richard and Dan kept on going and growing. Today, "we’re right close to 10,000 acres," he said.

With brother Dan semi-retired now, Richard is grooming the next generation: two of his sons, Layne and Rhett, and two nephews, Randy Polatis and Blair Furniss. They handle much of the day-to-day operations when Richard’s NPC responsibilities take him on the road.

Polatis became involved in NPC early in his career. He started going to meetings in 1973 or 1974, he said.

“I had a friend that went to the meetings and I decided to go and then I became involved.”

He also joined the Idaho Potato Growers Association and was president of that group for two years, from 1984 to 1986.

But most of his time has been spent with NPC.

"I’ve been serving on the board of directors, probably since the mid-80s," he said.

In the mid-90s, "I was vice-president of legislation for a couple of years, vice-president of grower relations for a year, then I dropped back to just being a director for a few years," he said.

He returned to NPC’s executive committee as the vice president of legislative and government affairs, followed by two years as vice president of trade affairs before becoming the president.

It’s a job he enjoys, and it doesn’t take too much of his time from overseeing his operations in Idaho.

"It’s fun," Polatis said. "It takes about three weeks of my life a year at different times. For example, in January we have a meeting that lasts almost a week. And then it took almost a week in February. And then in July we have what we call a summer meeting where all the directors get together, and it takes about four or five days."

NPC is an important organization for the nations’ potato growers, representing their interests in Washington, D.C.

"It’s our active arm with the federal government," he said, "with the agencies and with your congressional delegations.

"Right now when we go to Washington, we don’t lobby for subsidies, we lobby for research funds. We’re after research funds to enhance the potato. We have a committee, and we decide where about a million and a half dollars goes in research – whether it’s Cornell, Aberdeen or Pullman," he said.

One major issue NPC is currently addressing is trade – specifically, export markets. One advantage to the present devalued dollar is a better export market for U.S. goods. Polatis said Asia is a valuable and growing market. Japan is a large market for fry and dehydrated potato products, but NPC is looking to grow fresh sales there, too.

"We’re trying to get fresh potatoes into Japan," Polatis said. "They really have a demand for about two to three months out of the year, when they don’t have fresh potatoes to make into chipping potatoes. So two years ago, we exported our first fresh potatoes to be processed into chips. That was quite a deal at the time.”

Peru, the ancestral home of the potato, is also a growing export market that NPC has been working on.

"We’ve just finished a trade agreement with Peru," Polatis said. "They don’t have the ability to grow a potato for a french fry. They need dehydrated potatoes. Actually, they’re having a hard time raising enough potatoes because of diseases.”

It’s more and more of a world market, for potatoes and other commodities, and the world market prices of other foodstuffs affect potato production and its resulting markets. Currently, record prices for wheat have everyone’s attention, and Polatis anticipates that some farmers will shift some of their land to wheat instead of potatoes this year – and that could result in a healthier potato market.

"We always have a tendency to overproduce potatoes, which makes us suffer," he said. "Grains have become – we’re kidding about it now – it’s become our cash crop, where it used to be a rotational crop before.”

To get those crops to market farmers have to have sufficient help, and that could be a problem this year. Polatis is a strong advocate for the H-2A program, which he sees as a better way for farm workers to get to their jobs legally.

“We’re worried about terrorism, but (labor’s) getting real critical to our industry," Polatis said. "We just need it to be easier to get them here."

Originally posted Thursday, Apr. 24, 2008

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