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Potato board names Washington grower as chairman

As the potato industry has changed over the years, one Washington growing operation also has changed with time. Skone & Connors has evolved over more than 60 years to become the grower/packer/shipper and member of a national marketing cooperative that it is today.

In the early 1940s, two potato growers, Bert Connors and George Skone, started their own growing and packing operations in the Pasco area of eastern Washington. The third generation of Connors now runs the family-owned operation, led by Bart Connors, the general manager of the business.

Connors was elected chairman of the United States Potato Board at the annual meeting in March, after serving from 1996 to 2002 on domestic and international marketing committees then served on the executive committee beginning in 2006 and most recently chaired the domestic marketing committee.

A Family Farm

Skone & Connors Inc. farms between 2,500 and 2,800 acres of potatoes in Warden and Wapato, Wash. They grow mostly Russet Norkotahs for the fresh market, with a few reds and yellows that are available seasonally. Between 800 and 900 acres are devoted to processing potatoes, and in recent years the contract prices have been very good, Connors said. In addition to potatoes, Skone & Connors also grows 600 to 650 acres of yellow, white and red onions and 500 acres of apples.

The farm is still a family operation with many extended members of the Skones and Connors involved in aspects of the growing, packing, shipping and marketing. In 1994, Skone & Connors partnered with three other Washington potatoes growers to deliver high-quality and consistent potatoes instead of competing over the same market. That cooperative venture was called Basin Gold, and it is now a national marketing group based in Pasco.

“The goal of the cooperative was to put together a sales and marketing entity that could offer year-round potatoes,” Connors said. “I think the model is still a good one. With so much consolidation in the retail market, there needs to be fewer marketers.

“I think Basin Gold was a forward-thinking idea in cutting down the number of marketers in the market.”

Connors works with the farm and Basin Gold, with his responsibilities blurred between the two. He’s the general manager of the farm operations, and during the season he’s focused on that. But during the winter he may spend more time on marketing and sales, mostly working on special projects or working with a few large customers.

Normally, harvest of red and yellow potatoes begins in early July, with the Norkotah harvest starting at the end of July. But late planting combined with unseasonably cool temperatures, including many frosts, has put growers 10 to 14 days off normal. Yields will likely be reduced, unless the weather is perfectfor the rest of the season, Connors said, but “having a few less potatoes around generally isn’t a bad thing.”

Connors said he was looking forward to serving as chairman of USPB, and said he learned a lot in his previous posts. He had the opportunity to travel international with the board to learn about international markets, which is a growing segment as the value of the dollar stays low. Skone & Connors ships potatoes to Mexico and Canada, and USPB has been working to expand sales in those countries as well.

“The industry has tremendous opportunities in exporting frozen process, chipping, dehydrated and fresh potatoes. It’s just a matter of taking advantage of the opportunities when they become available and addressing market access issues. International Marketing has also been effective in promoting and protecting U.S. potatoes and potato products abroad. Our message is consistent to our foreign customers that the US produces the best quality frozen potato products."

But the board is fairly domestically focused because most of the potatoes grown in the United States are sold and consumed here. Even though the potato is the most-consumed vegetable in this country, consumption has declined and potato marketers are forced to make a somewhat dull product new and exciting to consumers.

“Domestic marketing is hard. We aren’t selling the sexiest product in America and we have to find a way to make it appealing. And that’s what I find most fun,” Connors said.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve with so many capable industry members, from all of the growing regions across America. With my fellow USPB leaders, we are interested in developing programs that will be truly beneficial to each member of the U.S. potato industry.

“On the domestic marketing side, we are communicating to consumers about how potatoes fit into their lifestyles. With the Best-in-Class category management program, the USPB is partenering with national retailers to improve fresh potato marketing. The demand building process can be difficult at times, but the USPB has proven that with repetition of its nutrition campaign, attitudes will change. Growers today are benefiting from this message communicated to their consumers that: ‘potatoes are good for you.’”

Originally posted Friday, May. 30, 2008

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