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Pasco grower elected president of NPC

In January, members of the National Potato Council elected Ed Schneider of Schneider Farms in Pasco, Wash., the council president for 2009. He succeeds Rich Polatis of Blackfoot, Idaho.

Schneider has farmed in southern Washington since graduating from Washington State University in 1977 with a degree in agricultural economics. His parents moved the family to the Pasco area from California in the mid-‘60s when the wells dried up. Other families from California had settled there, and the Schneiders went right back to farming hay as they’d done in California. Schneider said he knew he wanted to return to the farm his parents started – and while he was at college they put in the first crop of potatoes. He worked on the farm raising potatoes and took it over when his parents retired in 1982. He now farms with his wife, Liz, who helps with the books, and they raised two daughters on the farm.

Schneider has grown the farming operation to almost 2,000 acres, with 1,400 acres dedicated to potatoes and 500 acres for sweet corn and wheat. Schneider grows for processors, and his largest customer is Simplot. He grows Ranger Russet potatoes, and two years ago he switched some acres over to yellow potatoes – Bintje variety – that are used as baby bakers in a roasted product by Simplot.

He’s been involved with industry organizations for some time. From 1996 to 2005 he served on every committee of the Washington State Potato Commission, and in 2001-2002 was chairman. During his time with the state commission, he had the opportunity to work closely with NPC and saw what was happening at the national level.

“There was a need there that wasn’t being filled. It made us more proactive rather than reactive to issues that affect our industry,” Schneider said.

In 2006, he was elected to serve on NPC’s executive committee as vice president of legislative and government affairs, a position he held until his election as president of the council.

Back on the farm, Schneider’s planted acres will remain about the same as last year for Schneider, but he doesn’t sell on the open market. His entire crop, including the small yellow bakers, is contracted long before the season starts. Or, they usually are. This season was different because growers agreed on prices before the end of the year, but processors came back in the winter to renegotiate.

“We settled contracts in the fall for a big increase, but they were never signed,” Schneider said.

In January, the processors said they couldn’t pay as much as what they previously agreed to, so new contract prices had to be set. The new rate is still up from last year, but not as high as growers initially thought. It helped some that input costs – fuel and chemicals – have dropped, so Schneider said growers are still in good shape.
Contract prices were just one of the issues Schneider had crop up during his first few months as NPC president. He has some goals that he’d like to work on, but said it looks like a lot of time is going to be taken addressing unexpected issues that have cropped up.

“When people asked me at the beginning of the year what I wanted to work on, I had a few things I could have told them. But now it looks like I’ll spend more time on the surprises that pop up,” he said.

One that growers in the Pacific Northwest saw coming was the metam sodium re-registration. Growers and state organizations had been working with EPA and the discussions were good, but they were surprised when the document came out and it was so restrictive, Schneider said. It wasn’t just the buffer zones that worried growers, but the monitoring requirements and the notifications of everyone around the field and various local and state agencies. Fortunately, EPA’s final document wasn’t “final” – growers were able to comment on it and a second final version is expected in July.

Schneider has also had to work with growers and NPC on the Mexican tariff situation. The 20 percent tax on potato products shipped to Mexico could drive away customers of U.S. potato products. As a grower of processing varieties, his customers are affected by the Mexican tariffs that were instituted in March.

In April, processing growers saw another unexpected issue appear. McDonald’s, after proposals submitted by its shareholders, announced it would be developing a program to cut back on the amount of pesticides in its fries. The company already had a sustainability program, but singling out pesticides in potatoes caught everyone off guard, Schneider said. Historically, McDonald’s has resisted being forced into policy changes, he said.

“They usually have all their ducks in a row and can usually defend themselves,” Schneider said.

Even with the unexpected issues he’s had to address so far, Schneider said he has a few programs he wants to move forward with. The first is the pesticide data collection project that was started a couple of years ago. It’s of even more importance now with customers committing to cutting back on pesticide use and some important chemicals going out of production.

“It’s close, but it needs some work,” Schneider said.

He also wants to continue working on the sustainability program. NPC started working on a sustainability document about a year and a half ago and got out front on the issue. The council was working with the Specialty Crop Alliance, Keystone and Leonardo Academy on their sustainability programs, and found the potato industry was ahead of the curve, Schneider said. The industry already has an audit outline and a good framework for moving forward.

“The document will form the basis of a program which can be used by the entire supply chain to demonstrate that we are an industry that does the right things and that we plan on being in business for a long time,” he said.

Schneider also said he’s looking forward to the second Potato Expo, which will be held at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort in Orlando Jan. 4-6. The first expo surpassed everyone’s expectations, Schneider said, so the planning committee wants to build on that and make the second one even better. It’s an opportunity for the entire industry to come together to network and learn how to better grow and market potatoes and potato products.

But before the Potato Expo, he has one more meeting to plan. Schneider will host the NPC summer meeting June 17-19 at the Red Lion Richland Hotel.

Originally posted Monday, May. 11, 2009

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