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U.S. Potato Cooperative Marks One-Year Anniversary

One year after it was formed, the United Potato Growers of America is movin’ on up – to Salt Lake City.

With the December hire of Julia Cissel as CEO, the potato cooperative is moving to its permanent home with a full staff in place. With these changes, the team will embark on its second year with several goals in mind: increasing membership, adding value, developing programs and managing the tactics of programs and communications.

“The amount they (United founders) have accomplished in a year has been extremely impressive,” Cissel said. “(They) took a group of growers who found themselves in a place where things needed to change, got them organized and got very effective programs in place.”

Cissel said her first two months as CEO were a whirlwind. She attended several industry trade shows to talk to growers about United and the next steps for the organization.

“I’ve been extremely excited and impressed with the amount of enthusiasm,” she said. “Certainly, our membership is extremely committed. We’ve proven ourselves in year one.”

Those who have already joined United and are participating in the programs are “early adopters,” Cissel said, who can see the vision of the organization. The next step is to spread the arms of the organization to the next level of growers – to those who were waiting to see what happened and how it could affect them. So far, United has proven true to its mission to help growers cut back acreage and raise profitability. However, there are those who aren’t members who also are reaping the benefits of what the members sow – or don’t.

“It’s been an enigma of cooperatives since they’ve been around: the free-rider situation,” said Albert Wada, United chairman.

A rising tide floats all boats, Cissel said – and United has done just that. Though some growers didn’t cut back acreage last season, they benefited from the increased prices because of those who did.

Wada and Cissel said that to encourage and increase membership, they need to implement programs that benefit members – and only members.

United is exploring bulk-purchase programs, such as those used for chemicals and insurance.

“We’re encouraging membership by showing the value of what consolidated growers can do in communications, cooperation and by adding value,” Wada said.

Wada should know. He has been one of the driving forces behind United. In fact, he’s been on hiatus from his own job for 16 months to get United up and running.

“Obviously, a lot of my motivation was self-preservation, because our potato industry has been so economically devastated in the past few years,” he said. “I’m 59 years old and have worked all my life to build a business, and to lose huge amounts of equity every year, you can hemorrhage your equity and business down the drain.”

Faced with losing resources within his own business, Wada worked with a group of other Idaho potato growers to get United started.

“It appeared to me that we were due for a vast, sweeping change to the industry or many of us were going to go down,” Wada said. “It’s not about a bunch of growers trying to get rich, but about growers that are just trying to survive.”

When supply gets more in line with demand, it stands to reason that prices will go up. Those increased revenues come from somewhere. That somewhere is consumers. Cissel said she’s heard from some that if growers organize to get higher returns for themselves, it will mean inflation for consumers.

“That is not our intent,” she said. “Our intent is to ensure we have adequate supplies to meet demand and do so in a very cost-effective manner so we assure high-quality supplies throughout the season.”

With one year behind them, it is the coming year that will tell how successful United – and its programs – will be.

“Success bred failure in the past,” Wada said. “Any time growers in the open fresh market have enjoyed a good year, they usually respond by overplanting. We have short memories as growers, but I think the memory is still not faded of the terrible last few years. I believe most growers, even the naysayers, are seeing the results of coordinated supply management strategies.”

Canada Unites

In the year since United of America formed, industries elsewhere have taken note. Among those is Canada. On Feb. 15, the steering committee for United Potato Growers of Canada signed papers to officially be recognized as a cooperative.

“We believe more collaborative efforts can be another tool to assure good markets and benefits for both sides of the border,” Cissel said.

Garry Sloik is co-chairman of the steering committee of United of Canada. He is the secretary-manager of Keystone Vegetable Producers Association in Manitoba.

Sloik said United of Canada and United of America would work closely together.

“Our market is their market, their market is our market,” he said. “It’s all one big puzzle.”

Canada’s potato growers are experiencing the same market shifts that growers in the United States are facing. Sloik said that’s what encouraged him to get involved.

As United of Canada gets going, the organization will work closely with existing potato organizations within Canada. Much of United of Canada’s promotions and publicity will be filtered through those organizations. That will allow information to get out more efficiently and effectively, Sloik said.

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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