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Outgoing USPB chairman shares perspective on industry transformation

If I could choose one word to describe my year as chairman, it would have to be “transformation.” It truly gave me a new perspective on the potato industry, different from what I had just 12 months ago.

Part of it is, I’ve logged more travel this year than in my entire adult life. I’ve visited cities and institutions I never thought I’d set foot in. Many of the places I traveled to gave me the opportunity to see potatoes through a different set of eyes – those of retailers, chefs and consumers, both domestic and foreign. If I were to choose one word to describe what these audiences want from potatoes, it, too, would be “transformation.”

Whether it is product innovation, packaging changes, new varieties or better handling, for consumers to increase their consumption of potatoes, the industry will have to change. I heard this all year long – in presentations at the World Potato Congress and Outlook Summit and at every one of the state-based conferences I visited. Growers have to get on the bandwagon to connect with the consumer and find a niche – or be left behind.

Even with all this discussion about change, I am confident the potato will continue to be America’s favorite vegetable – people love it! We simply live in a fast-paced society where the potato doesn’t fit like it used to. Let’s make the necessary changes in our growing and marketing procedures to help the potato keep up with busy people. We are first-class producers, but we need to become first-class marketers. To do that, we need to better understand the needs of our consumers.

This is where the U.S. Potato Board comes in. Because of the radical change in strategic direction over the past eight years, led by USPB President and CEO Tim O’Connor, growers have seen a dramatic improvement in how the USPB is working to increase demand for all potatoes and potato products. I’m proud of this organization, what it stands for and where it’s going as the respected industry leader in promotional research and information. There is overwhelming acceptance of the board’s strategy and programs by every segment of the industry. I see a bright future in the direction of the promotion of our potato products through this atmosphere of cooperation.

I’m especially proud of the USPB Executive Committee I had the pleasure of leading last year – my “Dream Team.” They were extraordinary, amazing men to work with. I can’t imagine any better. We accomplished so much together over the past year, and though we each represented different areas of the country and different sectors of potato growing, we worked in harmony together for the good of the industry.

One of the highlights of this year – and a surprise – was the great acceptance of the Healthy Mr. Potato Head character, which has revitalized people in the industry. My wife, Karlene, and I were balloon handlers during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. We were overwhelmed by the potato lovers along the two-and-a-half mile route. I admit, in the beginning, a lot of us saw it as a three-year public relations fling and wondered if it would really help sell potatoes. But even the skeptics changed their tune when we saw how positively consumers responded to that character.

I’m also excited about the increased demand the industry is seeing in international markets. There has been a lot of work done in foreign markets by the USPB staff, and we are seeing positive results from their efforts. The demand for dehy is really increasing, and the markets in Mexico and Southeast Asia are expanding rapidly.

I’m also pleased with the formation and momentum of the Industry Communications and Policy department, as the program is expanding in areas of communication that the board has never used before. This combination of grower leaders and dedicated staff will do a lot to boost the positive image of USPB in the industry.

It’s been an incredible year for me and my wife, to be so deeply involved in the U.S. potato industry and be able to associate with such great people. I consider it an honor and a privilege to have served this past year as chairman of the U.S. Potato Board. I encourage every grower to get involved in promoting and marketing our products. There is always a need for grower leaders to step up and give their time for the good of the industry. Through the work of USPB, the National Potato Council and state organizations, a cooperative synergy has developed that is second to none, and the best way to understand how it benefits our entire industry is by getting involved.

I thank my son, Ben. By taking over the farm while I was away, he made it possible for me to serve this year. I thank my wife, Karlene. She was by my side almost everywhere I traveled this year. I thank you, the growers. Last year, you had the confidence to give me this opportunity, and you’ve given me your overwhelming support throughout the year. I thank the USPB staff for their dedicated efforts. I will always cherish the friendships that have been made. I feel like I have benefited from this experience far more than the time I have given.

Originally posted Monday, Apr. 23, 2007

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