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USPB Chairman Looks to Continue Legacy

Randy Hardy is really looking forward to the World Potato Congress.

“It’s going to be a good opportunity to show off not just Idaho but the quality of what the United States produces,” said Hardy, of Oakley, Idaho, who was recently elected the chairman of the U.S. Potato Board (USPB). “I don’t think we know right now how neat it will be. I think it’ll be something we’ll be talking about for years.”

The World Potato Congress will be Aug. 20-26 in Boise, Idaho. Growers from all over the world will come to the U.S. potato capital to learn about the latest research and see the newest equipment available to them. And, Hardy said, it will be a great time for the U.S. industry to show the world what it’s got.

“As we become a global industry, the United States needs to step up to make sure our potential customers and partners understand the quality the United States produces,” he said. “We may not always be the cheapest, but we’ll always be the best.”

The USPB will be out in full force at the congress as one of the major sponsors. It also will have a booth at the event.

During his year as USPB chairman, Hardy said he is looking forward to continuing the work that was started in the last couple of years.

“I want to see the relationship between the board and the state organizations continue to improve,” he said.

As the potato industry continues to evolve in the United States – and in the world – Hardy sees national potato organizations playing an increasingly important role. In addition to serving as a voice for the industry, USPB does things growers can’t necessarily do on their own, such as public relations and research. Hardy said one of USPB’s most important roles is watching the markets.

“As the marketplace changes, a grower on his tractor in Idaho can’t recognize that,” he said. “I can’t be everywhere at once as a grower. We (growers) do our best to grow a quality crop, but without knowing what the marketplace is about, we can’t market it efficiently.”

Organizations such at the National Potato Council, United Potato Growers of America and USPB have given growers a way to come together and learn from each other to better the U.S. industry – not just individual growers, Hardy said.

“Without them (organizations), we’ll be back where we were 50 years ago: everyone for himself,” he said.

Though being chairman of USPB could potentially take Hardy away from his own business, he still feels it’s important to be active in the industry. It isn’t just a way to keep himself busy. Hardy’s biggest benefit is getting to network with other growers.

Involvement is “meeting good people who have the same values and ideals that I do,” he said. “It’s knowing a grower from another state isn’t competition but is just trying to make a living and make the industry better while maintaining a livelihood they enjoy so a future generation can do the same.”

A Potato Legacy

Hardy knows the importance of making the industry sustainable for future generations. One of his five children, Benjamin, has entered the family business and is working with him.

“My son is kind of like I was – I couldn’t get the dirt out of my veins,” Hardy said. “I never tried to discourage my son from farming. He loves it and I’ve never had to force him to work. It’s been a real good relationship.”

When Hardy graduated high school, he went to Brigham Young University for one year. After that year, he knew where he needed to be: back on the farm. And though his father encouraged him to go to college and get a job off the farm, Hardy returned home. That was in the summer of 1972, and Hardy was 19. Two months after Hardy returned to the farm, his father died – and he took over the farm permanently.

In 1994, there were three other farming entities about the size of Hardy’s that faced a similar problem of marketing the potatoes they were growing. The four operations joined together in their marketing efforts and decided to renovate an old packing facility that had been operated in the ’40s and ’50s by W.B. Whiteley. In December of that year, Oakley Potato Packers Inc. opened for business, and they have been packing their own potatoes ever since. The partnership markets its potatoes through Idahoan Fresh in Idaho Falls and packs Russet Burbanks almost exclusively.

Today, Hardy Farms is a 2,200-acre farm. Hardy and his son grow wheat, barley, alfalfa and corn silage in addition to 350 acres of potatoes.

In the 34 years since Hardy took over the family farm, he’s seen the industry change – a lot.

“Just like any facet of business, technology has enabled us to consistently increase our yields and our quality,” he said. “That’s been a good thing, but it’s also been our enemy.”

Growers today are able to grow more potatoes on fewer acres than they could in the past. While this has made growers more efficient, it hasn’t meant more profits. With this increasing efficiency came a changing marketplace, with consumers eating fewer and fewer potatoes.

“We’re having to tame ourselves,” Hardy said. “In the early days of the industry, they bought what we produced. Now, we need to produce what they want.”

It takes more than the ability to grow a good potato in today’s industry.

“It’s become a costly business that takes a lot of business sense and good management to be successful,” he said.

It’s an industry Hardy wouldn’t advise people to try to get into on their own.

“It’s difficult to start from scratch because of the expense,” he said. “The only way it’s possible now is to become involved with an operation already in business.

“If you have a love for potato growing, get involved with a grower who is looking for good help or a partner and become involved that way. If you have the desire to work it and work on it, you can do it.”

Besides the hard work that comes with it, growing potatoes costs much more now – with the costs of inputs expected to rise continually.

“So many of our inputs are traced back to petroleum,” Hardy said. “And land prices are rising. Living prices continue to go up.”

Besides the fuel itself, chemical costs are rising, as are costs for items such as PVC pipe.

“Virtually any new construction and remodeling has been put on hold here because the pipe costs so much,” he said.

One cost Hardy is particularly concerned about is health insurance.

“No one yet has come up with a good, affordable health insurance policy for farmers,” he said. “That’s a huge factor for me, and I know it is for many others.”

Hardy admits it’s been a tumultuous couple of years for the industry, but he still wouldn’t change the path his life has taken.

“It’s a good life,” he said. “I get personal satisfaction of growing a good crop and raising my family in a rural environment.”

Plus, things are starting to turn around. With the formation of the United Potato Growers cooperatives, Hardy sees production leveling off a bit so supply and demand aren’t so out of line with each other. And continued efforts by the nation’s potato organizations to increase demand and get the word out about the nutritional value of potatoes can only help matters, he said.

“We’re coming through a good year. It’s huge for the industry,” he said. “There are those who believe the potato industry is dying, but potatoes will probably always be the most demanded vegetable.”

Hardy and his wife, Karlene, have five children and 16 grandchildren – with a 17th due in July.

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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