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New USPB Chairman Sees Potato Market Turning Around

U.S. Potato Board (USPB) Chairman Ray Meiggs knows that it’s going to take a lot of work to help return the country’s potato industry back to where it belongs.

Far from being just an elected board member, he’s intimately involved in the potato industry. He’s worked for the Ferebee family – his wife’s family – potato farm, in Camden, N.C., since 1985. And he just recently stepped out of his role there to work with Keith Masser’s Keystone Potato Products. So, yes, he does know a little about what it might take to turn the industry around.

“The most important challenge in the short term is to respond to the industry,” Meiggs said. “The big-picture challenge is arresting and turning around the decline of consumption in this country.”

And that’s why he’s excited for the opportunities that being USPB chairman will bring. Meiggs said he believes it will take a continued effort and investment but that the potato industry is on the right track with its push toward promoting the potato’s healthy image.

“We can have fun with the healthy aspects of that powerhouse vegetable: potatoes,” he said. “The potato is just a fabulous vegetable. And for whatever reasons, there are other things that have surpassed and supplanted the role of the potato in the diet.”

Meiggs is excited about the partnership between Hasbro and USPB that will bring Mr. Potato Head into the folds of the Healthy Potato campaign. The partnership involves a healthy-looking Mr. Potato Head balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that will include a USPB sign and message that potatoes are a healthful part of a balanced diet.

“It’s more than a parade and Mr. Potato Head,” Meiggs said. “It’s a tremendous launch, a platform.”

Meiggs said there has already been positive feedback from potato industry members domestically and internationally.

“There’s going to be a lot of opportunities to get this information out with our new partnership with Hasbro,” he said. “We’ve seen tremendous excitement internationally.”

But Meiggs’ year ahead as chairman is going to be more than balloons and Mr. Potato Heads. One challenge he is going to face is getting the word out to growers about the .5-cent assessment increase voted by the board.

So far, he said, growers have been supportive of the assessment increase, but there’s still some work needed to educate growers as to the reasons behind the assessment increase.

“We’ve been suffering these changes in the marketplace for several years and know we need to continue to grow this pie,” Meiggs said. “We’re losing growers and acreage in production big time. It’s a difficult time in the industry.”

One of the ways he’s working to impress upon growers what he sees as a needed increase is by explaining the increase as an investment and not a cost. Growers, he said, are leery of spending more money on production costs, and an assessment is basically added into that.

“(But), if a fungicide would increase my yields but would cost me more, I wouldn’t hesitate to use that if it would work,” Meiggs said. “This (increase) is an investment that will increase your ‘yields.’”

Meiggs is positive about the USPB’s efforts to increase potato consumption, but the only way he can see the situation improving is through continuing – and adding to – the current course of promotions.

“If we don’t invest further, we’re going to have to cut back – now’s not the time to do it,” he said.

Among the programs Meiggs said are helping to improve the industry are USPB’s Best in Class program, which works with retailers to revamp and liven up potato displays in stores across the nation; the Healthy Potato campaign; and the new partnership with Hasbro.

USPB board members voted at the annual meeting to ramp up the industry outreach committee with a subcommittee to work with the group to help it be an ambassador to the industry.

“They’ll be joining in with industry outreach to say, ‘let’s stay on the high road, let’s stay on positive ground.’” Meiggs said. “We don’t need to be fighting within the foxhole. The problem is outside the foxhole.”

A Personal Fight

Meiggs knows the issues because he’s been fighting outside that foxhole as a grower and now as the head of sales for Keystone Potato Products. He left E. Ferebee Farms because the farm had to downsize its potato operation as the industry changed.

“The demands in the marketplace have shifted dramatically, and an operation like ours, which is seasonal in the fresh market, loses a foothold when we’re out of season,” Meiggs said. “We found it much more difficult to hold onto our fresh retail accounts as the year-round re-packers and shippers and the consolidation of the industry has evolved.”

But at Keystone, Meiggs will be branching out into some new areas of potato production as he works on the processing side.

“I think it’s going to broaden my perspective on the potato industry – taking into account all sectors and how critically important all the sectors are,” he said. “I like to grab a new bull by the horns and see where we can ride.”

And those new areas look promising to Meiggs, especially dehydrated and fresh-cut.

“I think we have so much opportunity with the dehy products to ramp up and get our message out about how quick and easy it can be,” he said.

Meiggs doesn’t stop promoting potatoes at USPB or Keystone – he makes it his personal mission to let everyone know how good potatoes are.

“Friends of mine now say, ‘Oh, look at that bowl of potassium,’ not just bowl of potatoes,” he said. “The United States grows the best potatoes in the world, bar none, and we need to make sure everybody knows that.”

As he continues to spread the message and work with the industry to get the word out, Meiggs said he also is excited to put North Carolina potatoes on the map.

“I’m flattered and honored about having the opportunity to do this,” he said. “North Carolina is just a blip on the radar screen, and to have that kind of support from other parts of the country, I’m excited about that and extremely honored.

“But I think it’s important to reflect to the industry that it’s not about any one individual, and it’s not about any one growing area – it’s about the industry at large.”

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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