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Michigan seed grower to lead the council in 2007

Don Sklarczyk was elected to a one-year term as president of the National Potato Council at the group’s annual meeting in January. Don grows minituber seed potatoes with his wife, Mary Kay, and son, Ben, from their greenhouse operation in Johannesburg, Mich.

Don spoke with Spudman about his goals as president and why he believes the potato industry must work together to be successful.

How did you get involved in the National Potato Council, and why did you continue to be part of the leadership?

My first exposure to NPC was with a leadership program called Young Growers Leadership in 1987. At that first meeting, it was clear to me NPC was made up of growers who are “movers and shakers.” The group impressed me with the decisions that were made. At that time of my life, I couldn’t get actively involved with the NPC because of the need for out-of-state travel. I did become involved with state issues and organizations. I served as chairman of the Seed Certification Organization and then the Michigan Potato Industry Commission. When the time was right, I again attended NPC meetings as one of the board of directors from Michigan. I was not able to attend all meetings but saw the benefits of attending whenever I could. Over the years, I also recognized active members of NPC had very well-run farming operations. I learned so much from discussions at the NPC meetings, I always said, “I never attempted to benefit my personal operation with my involvements with NPC, it just happens.” The benefits of my involvement helped my own operation, the state potato industry as well as the potato industry on a national level.

None of this would have been possible without the strong support from Mary Kay, Benjamin, our son, and all of our members of our family. All of our three children are married and we are blessed to have them and all their spouses contribute something to our operation. Along with this is the dedicated staff that takes care of so many of the day-to-day issues that come up. They all understand every task we do will impact many others.

What are your responsibilities with NPC?

As president of NPC, my major responsibilities will be to allow the many people involved with the potato industry to show their talents. This includes not only the growers who volunteer their time and skills, but the staff in the Washington, D.C., office.

Now, I referenced talented people involved with the potato industry: this encompasses all groups that impact the potato industry. We are fortunate to have a good working relationship with the NPPB (National Potato Promotion Board) and the United groups. Also, the potato industry works with governmental agency staff, who shape our future.

What are some of the biggest issues facing the potato industry in 2007 and beyond?

While we continue to work on problems of trade, keeping crop protection products and, of course, staying profitable, new complications occur each year. As more and more international trade takes place, the opportunity for new pest problems will increase. As the U.S. population continues to become less active and more overweight, more health problems will result. Some groups will step up in an attempt to secure funds and point fingers to our food supply. Ours is the safest in the world. The more confusion of the fact they can create, the better the chance for someone to send them a check.

This ties into the endangered species issue. The next real challenge to potato production in the U.S. will be how our industry deals with endangered species. This includes many species we normally don’t consider. The NPC water and endangered species sub-committee is co-chaired by C.J. Robinson from Colorado and Howard Viegelahn from Michigan. I requested co-chairs from the different areas to provide diversity in the leadership as well as representation from every potato production area. At each meeting, they call for reports from each area. It has been very beneficial for the information to be shared by the group. Many times, the solution to a local problem has been worked out by another area.

What specific programs will you be focusing on?

The shaping of the Farm Bill will require a lot of time and effort. It is finally understood in Washington, D.C., that specialty crops have been underserved by the government. We must take advantage of this fact because it will not be an option next year, after the Farm Bill details are determined. The Farm Bill might not be completed this year, but we must stay on top of its development.
Another project that will not be completed this year but must be started is the collection of crop protection data. Growers are already required to maintain crop protection application records. This information has tremendous value for the industry.

Without correct grower data, EPA must use maximum rates and maximum application when figuring out application practices. Most of the time, this is not the case and it causes the risk cup to overfill. When that occurs, the use of products are eliminated or restricted. Our goal is to have a data collection bank that would provide true data.

For this project to be successful, it must first and foremost provide total security of the information provided by the grower. No grower’s information can be allowed to be singled out. Growers must also not be expected to do additional work. Data record-keeping systems growers presently use must translate into one program to provide actual use information.
Growers are excellent stewards of the land and we must be willing to show that fact.

Correct information will allow the continued use of crop protection products, registration of new products. An additional large benefit will be to show what we are doing is not creating a negative impact upon endangered species in our growing areas.

This project will require several years to put together, but is already on its way with two outside computer consultants working on the data conversion part and many growers discussing its benefits to fellow growers. Nick Somers and Lynn Olson are taking the lead on this project. I am happy to say many of the processors are willing to assist with the project.

This project ties into food security and the ability to track the production practices growers are using. This too will become more important each year.

Do you add a different perspective as a seed grower?

One must realize any seed producer is also a grower of potatoes. The difference is the seed producer must first and foremost remember his product must reproduce the best possible crop under its given conditions. A seed grower’s customer must produce a quality crop, or they will not be back next year for more products. Without repeat business, no seed operation will survive. Many of the same issues that impact the commercial grower also impact the seed grower. I feel to be a successful seed provider you must understand the needs of your customer. This requires the seed producer to not only understand what the commercial grower’s needs are during his production cycle, but also to understand what the end user of the product they produce demands.

In the end, we all produce a product that constantly must be of higher quality than the year previous. My desire is to share some of the visions I have to help shape the future of the potato industry. In the end, we are all dependent upon the overall health of the potato industry.

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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