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Jim Wysocki Has Ambitious Goals For His Year As NPC President

The potato industry is going through some big changes. And it’s not just the marketplace that’s different. It’s the nature of the business.

“Thirty years ago, hard work and producing a good crop assured economic success,” said Jim Wysocki, National Potato Council president. “Now, it also requires a good business plan, a willingness to partner with others and increased management skills.

“I am amazed at the sophistication that has grown in our business – regardless of business size.”

Wysocki, of Bancroft, Wis., took the helm at NPC in January. He has ambitious goals for his one-year term.

Among those goals is working with NPC staff on the 2007 Farm Bill. In the past, Wysocki said, NPC’s goal for the farm bills was to preserve planting flexibility restrictions for program crop growers, which would not allow them to plant potatoes on subsidized land. For the 2007 Farm Bill, NPC wants to take that one step further.

“Fifty-one percent of the gross revenue for agriculture (in this country) is specialty crops,” Wysocki said. “Yet 95 percent of federal dollars are paid to the five commodity crops.”

NPC has joined other specialty-crop organizations from the vegetable, fruit and tree nut industries to get the specialty crop industries recognized in the next Farm Bill.

“We want our own title, which is mandatory spending every year instead of always being up for approval,” Wysocki said.

That doesn’t mean specialty crops want to be considered program crops. They don’t. And they don’t want program crops to stop getting the funding they already receive.

“What we need is research, technical support and infrastructure – all those things that give us the tools to market and export our crops,” Wysocki said.

What are they doing to get there? The coalition of specialty-crop organizations has created documents supporting their request, and some have testified at USDA hearings.

“Retention of planting flexibility restrictions and infrastructure support programs are the cornerstones of the coalition,” Wysocki said. “Potato growers are seeking investment in the competitiveness and sustainability of the infrastructure of our industry, not direct payments.

“The Farm Bill is the most important legislative issue in the next two years,” he said.

The 2007 Farm Bill isn’t the only legislative item on NPC’s agenda. Wysocki said a big concern is the National Uniformity for Food Labeling Act, which has passed through the House of Representatives and is expected to be introduced in the Senate soon. The legislation deals with health warnings for food products. Instead of each state being able to create its own labeling messages, such as California’s recent label for acrylamide, there would be national standards or FDA-approved regional standards. These warnings would be based on scientific research.

“It puts language out that everybody follows,” Wysocki said.

Wysocki wants to continue the collaboration between the U.S. Potato Board (USPB), United Potato Growers of America (United) and NPC. Working together is one of the things Wysocki cited when talking about industry success.

Industry Involvement

The success of the industry depends on potato growers, from innovation on the farm level to participation on a larger scale. Wysocki credited past NPC leaders, such as Louis Wysocki and Nick Somers, for helping him get involved in NPC. He also said participation in the Potato Industry Leadership Institute helped him figure out what it takes to be an industry leader.

“It’s an excellent program, and anyone who has the opportunity to get involved should,” he said.

When Wysocki went through the leadership institute in 1999, his roommate was Dan Moss, last year’s NPC president.

“With the increased pace of change and the reduction in the numbers of people employed in our industry, there is a great deal of work for volunteer growers, but less growers and each grower having less time to volunteer,” he said. “We need to encourage new volunteers and leaders to step up and participate.”

Among the skills he gained during the program were public speaking skills – which have given Wysocki the ability to be a representative for the potato industry in his area.

“We need to speak publicly, and you need a person able to step up,” he said.

Another bonus to being active in the industry is networking. While many of Wysocki’s neighbors are his competitors and not necessarily the best people to toss around ideas with, the growers he meets from across the United States give him the opportunity to get some real ideas flowing.

“I can’t share my business secrets with my neighbors, but a fellow grower in Idaho is going through the same experiences I am,” he said. “You create business relationships with like-minded people.”

As a member of industry boards, Wysocki is privy to information about the latest trends.

“The ideas you see coming are three to five years out, but you can see them first,” he said.

Wysocki mentioned products such as those featured in the March issue of Spudman – ready-to-eat meals and value-added dishes – as the trends just now hitting the U.S. industry.

“I think it’s the right thing for the industry, and I think it’ll help change our perception with the consumers,” he said.

While he doesn’t think it will mean a lot of added volume for the industry, he sees value-added products making a lot of money.

In fact, Paragon Potato Farms – the part of the company that deals with packaging and specialty products – has already started marketing individually wrapped, microwaveable potatoes as well as whole-meal replacements featuring potatoes, complete with utensils.

“There’s only so many who want to buy 15-pound packages and only so many who want to buy whole-meal replacements as well,” he said. “Our goal is to reach both of those consumers.”

Paragon Potato Farms is only one part of the company. There’s also the Russet Potato Exchange, which handles sales, marketing and transportation, and Wysocki Produce Farm, which is the production end of the company.

It’s important to Wysocki to be involved in different areas and to partner with different people on different projects.

“(To succeed), you have to sit back and really evaluate your own personal strengths,” he said.

Before getting into the industry, people need to discover their strengths and find those who can complement their skills. There really is strength in numbers.

“Ten percent of a lot is more than 100 percent of a little,” he said. “If you look at any other industry, partnering business relationships are extremely common. Our independence is costly.”

Wysocki sees the industry headed in the right direction with United and other partnering opportunities. He predicts that cooperation and independence will continue.

“What NPC, USPB and United have been able to accomplish by growers working together is what I find the most rewarding and inspires me to believe we can overcome any obstacles as an industry,” he said.

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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