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Born to the Industry

Born to the Industry

John Meyer, a fourth-generation grower from Cohocton, N.Y., recognizes that it takes the talents of many minds, and efforts from many hands to enable the work of feeding the world the highest quality U.S. potatoes and potato products.

“One thing I’ve realized, serving on the United States Potato Board (USPB) is it doesn’t matter how big any one of us are to this industry, nobody can do this work alone,” Meyer said. “I have no ego and admit I’m just another cog in the machine.”

Meyer’s self-description belies the role he plays within the potato industry.

“I guess you could say I was born to this industry,” Meyer said. “My family has been growing potatoes for as longs as I can remember and longer than I have been around. They farmed first in Long Island, then they moved up to our upstate location in 1944, and that’s where we’ve been ever since.”

At Joseph L. Meyer & Sons, Meyer is quick to recognize his family for their roles in providing important help, guidance and support to make this family farm successful.

“My mother, Phyllis, has a master’s degree in education, was a teacher, and works as our farm’s bookkeeper,” Meyer said. “There’s my brother Joe, my wife Lisah and my son Brian who are all active in this family farming operation.

“And then there’s Bill Schumacher who has been with us for almost 25 years, and I guess that makes him more like family than an employee. He runs our shop but will do anything you want, whether it’s running a planter or doing mechanic work. Bill is a rare find. He is always the first one at work and the last one to leave for home.”

Atlantics, Rebas, Snowdens, Wanetas and Lamoka chip-stock potatoes are grown for chip processors like Utz Quality Foods, Zapps, Wise Foods and Herrs Foods. They also market through independent chip potato dealers in the region.

“Our area is pretty blessed with an abundant supply of water for irrigation,” Meyer said. “I have talked at length with some of my friends in the west and they tell me about the challenges they face with water aquifers. I am very happy we don’t have those issues. Our climate is pretty favorable also.

Meyer said that they begin planting around April 15, and have decent growing conditions for the most part. Growers harvesting after Oct. 25 are on borrowed time because the weather can become unpredictable leading into winter.

“Our biggest challenge here would be late blight,” Meyer said concerning disease and pest issues. “This is a bullet we need to dodge every year. Our climate does tend to be favorable for diseases like late blight. We can get cool, damp nights and this is not good when trying to manage potatoes to control this disease.

“As far as pests, I would say the Colorado potato beetle would be the one to watch. Those bugs can get tough to control.”

The New York potato industry services New England chip companies and area grocery chains. Since the origination of the New York certification program in 1913, growers and potato researchers at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., work hard in developing a quality seed potato development program, and participating in seed program trials and developments on a national level.

“All of our growers take a lot of pride in producing a high quality potato that we hope speaks for itself to our customers,” Meyer said. “We know we are nowhere near the biggest growing area, but we strive to do our best.

“We run a small percentage of our crop out of the field, maybe 10 to15 percent. The rest goes into storage and the chip companies use them up between November and April.”

As for challenges considered unique to his market, Meyer said it has to be taxes. “I don’t think it is any mystery that New York has some of the highest taxes in the U.S.,” he said. “Taxes translate to higher prices for everything – fuels, insurances, utilities and on and on. Our high input costs make for a finer line between profit and loss,” Meyer said.

For marketing opportunities, Meyer said that fresh potatoes resonate best with older consumers while potato chips do well with younger people.

“For the guys growing fresh, the older folks, I think, are our number one fans with their traditional meals featuring potatoes in most dishes,” he said. “For the guys growing for chips, I think the younger generation eats more chips per person, and we grow our spuds for chips.

“We, as an industry need to spruce up the image of potatoes for all demographics. All our farm can do is try to keep producing high-quality spuds and trying new varieties that are pleasing to both our customers and the public as a whole.”

Meyer is serving his first year as a co-chairman of the USPB Industry Communications and Policy Committee. He served as chairman of the USPB Finance Committee in 2012-2013. From 2010 to 2012, he served on the USPB Administrative Committee as a member of its Domestic Marketing Committee.

Meyer believes that the role the USPB plays in promoting potatoes is not well understood by many growers.

“First of all, at least in my area, I don’t think most people realize how much effort the USPB puts into international program work,” Meyer said. “They are constantly trying to open new markets globally. Countries like Thailand, Korea, China, Japan, Mexico and the Philippines – all of these markets are either being worked on or have been opened up for trade to the U.S., in large part thanks to the USPB.”

Meyer said that the USPB’s efforts in international markets move a significant market share out of the U.S.

“Almost 17 percent of the potato crop grown in the west is exported,” Meyer said. “That means approximately one out of every six rows planted goes outside U.S. borders, which means those potatoes are not showing up in stores in your backyard and competing with other U.S. growers in our marketplaces.”

At the same time the USPB is working to increase the demand for potatoes and potato products here in the U.S.

“The Domestic Marketing Committee is constantly fine tuning its messages to the average household to attempt to boost sales within the U.S.,” Meyer said. “The Industry Communications and Policy Committee tries every day to keep all the members of the USPB current on relevant issues. And let me tell you, by experience, the Finance Department is stretching every penny to give its members the best return on investment possible.”

Meyer has been involved with the Empire State Potato Growers for more than 12 years. For five years, he served as its president and treasurer. He commends this New York non-profit grower association, which represents approximately 150 commercial potato growers, and the efforts of executive secretary Melanie Wickham.

“Like Bill Schumacher is to our farm, Wickham is also a rare find and extremely valuable to our state,” Meyer said. “She is a great representative of New York farming and agriculture, and puts in long hours each year at the Empire Farm Days in Seneca Falls, N.Y., making sure potatoes are recognized for their part in New York’s diverse agriculture industry.”

For a man who describes his own role in the potato industry as a cog in the wheel, Meyer recognizes and appreciates all the components that work together promoting the U.S. potato industry.

“In the USPB, the best tools and resources come from the entire package,” Meyer said. “If one or two of the departments were not in the mix, we would have a clunker, but right now it’s running like a well-oiled machine.”

— By David Fairbourn, Spudman correspondent

Originally posted Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014

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