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Looking to the Future

USPB chairwoman seeks grower input on new long-range plan
By Dianna Troyer, Spudman correspondent

As 2010-11 chair of the U.S. Potato Board, Cheryl Koompin envisions her goals for the coming year as clearly as she can see miles and miles of her family's fields sprawling along the rolling bluffs overlooking the Snake River south of — American Falls, Idaho.

Cheryl, whose one-year term began in March, will help growers give input on a new five-year, long-range plan for 2012 to 2016, while continuing to work on achieving their current long-range goal of increasing demand for U.S. potatoes.

"Helping the USPB make sound decisions on the best return for the grower's investment is my job," Cheryl said.

Cheryl Koompin discusses her goals.

Relaxing at her kitchen table, she outlined her domestic goals for the coming year.

"We have to continue to try to increase demand in several ways. We will encourage processors and the fresh industry to become more innovative in their product lines, as they continue to provide convenient new products such as shrink-wrapped and microwave-ready potatoes. Consumer advertising that relates the healthy goodness of potatoes is also one of the things the USPB helps the potato industry accomplish. At the same time, we stress to potato producers that they must base their planting decisions on market conditions."

At Koompin Brothers Farm, all crops are under contract before being planted. The 10,000-plus-acre farm encompasses approximately 3,300 acres of potatoes with rotations of wheat, snap peas, feed corn, medicinal, safflower and mustard. Cheryl and her husband Klaren, their sons Kamren and Kael, along with Klaren's brother Ken and his wife Kathy operate the farm with 13 full-time employees and 90 to 100 seasonal workers.

"We grow 160 to 240 acres of certified seed potatoes and the balance in nine different varieties for frozen, dehy and chip processors," Cheryl said. "Growing many varieties for different markets has helped us survive some tough weather and market years."

Cheryl plans to help U.S. potatoes find a home by continuing to educate food aid organizations about the value and convenience of dehydrated potato granules and flakes as a vital component of food assistance packages for programs dealing with HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health, education, emergencies, disasters and global food security.

Currently, her favorite hunger relief organization is Feed My Starving Children (FMSC), a nonprofit Christian group that provides food to more than 60 countries. One of the organization's most successful projects is MannaPack Potato, a fortified potato and soy protein meal developed for infants and adults suffering from severe malnutrition and dehydration.

"Something different and exciting about FMSC is that volunteers purchase all the ingredients and pack all the meals for shipping," Cheryl said.

"I believe one of the reasons we're here on this planet is to serve one another," said Cheryl, a member of St. John's Lutheran Church in American Falls. "The church has a long history of being a partner with a variety of humanitarian organizations that provide hunger relief. I feel blessed to be able to bless others by helping feed them."

Before being appointed USPB chairman, Cheryl served as co-chair of the board's international marketing committee from 2006 to 2009. She had become interested in serving on the committee after traveling to western Africa in 2004, taking the first dehydrated potatoes into that continent.

The USPB's International Food Assistance Initiative trips are organized to teach communities how to use dehydrated potato products. The U.S. government and different humanitarian organizations purchase them for country feeding programs after they are accepted. Cheryl's two years of African travel kindled her passion to promote the use of dehydrated potatoes for humanitarian projects worldwide.

She recalls some unforgettable incidents. In one village in Senegal, an older man cradled the pure white potato flakes in his hands, gently tossed them in the air, laughed and said it was like "manna from heaven." Mothers were impressed with how easy they were to prepare. Some sat under trees, smiling as they all tasted mashed potatoes for the first time. Crowds of hungry children eagerly lined up for samples.

Dehydrated potatoes have not only helped relieve hunger in Africa and many Third World countries, they have enabled HIV/AIDS patients to nourish their bodies so their medications are effective, Cheryl said.

"In some countries, people taking HIV/AIDS medications were still dying because of malnutrition. After they started a diet with potatoes, their bodies were better able to absorb the medicine and fatalities dropped. Experts say potatoes are a hero because they provide gut integrity. Besides being nutritious, they are very easy to digest," Cheryl said.

Dehydrated potatoes are becoming popular with hunger relief programs for several reasons.

"There's no difference nutritionally between a fresh potato and a dehydrated product," Cheryl said. "They're also economical, because they're lightweight and easy to transport. They have a long shelf life and can be rehydrated with liquids other than water. Where I traveled, some mothers used breast milk or mango juice. And unlike other commodities, a small amount of dehy potatoes rehydrates to a lot of food. The ratio is approximately six to one."

Describing herself as a "cheerleader for America's favorite vegetable," Cheryl poured a few low-fat Kettle chips in a bowl and shared a few sample packages of dehydrated mashed potatoes and hash browns.

Cheryl's knowledge of potatoes extends far beyond simple cheerleading. With more than three decades of farming experience, coupled with a college degree in consumer sciences with an emphasis in nutrition, she is as familiar with the business economics of raising potatoes as with the home economics of fixing spuds for her family. Cheryl helps in planting, harvesting, sorting, and has personally stacked over 1 million cwt. of spuds, besides baking and mashing them for Klaren and their sons, Kamren, 30, and Kael, 28, who have joined the family enterprise after college.

Cheryl's introduction to farming began in 1975, when she married Klaren.

"At that time, the only contract we could get was for wheat and grass seed, so we raised hogs for several years," she said.

Eventually, Klaren and Ken obtained contracts for other crops, steadily expanded the farm and got out of the livestock business, "the best move we ever made," Cheryl said.

As the farm increased in size, the scope of Klaren's and Cheryl's work extended far beyond their fields, as they volunteered to serve on the boards of state and national potato farming organizations.

During Klaren's tenure on the USPB from 1996 to 2002, his USPB staff and committees were instrumental in persuading officials with the UN World Food Program to include dehydrated potatoes in food-aid baskets, which already included other commodities such as wheat, corn, rice and soybeans.

"Potatoes are culturally accepted worldwide and pack so much nutrition and good taste that we were glad they were finally added in 1999," Cheryl said.

With their time-consuming work on the farm and volunteerism, Cheryl and Klaren have little time for vacations, but they say they don't mind.

"When we travel to meetings, we'll take an extra day to visit museums and sightsee. Just being with other farmers and industry people is a vacation in itself," Cheryl said.

Occasionally, friends ask them when they'll retire or get away in winter to a warmer climate, but that doesn't seem to fit the Koompins' values.

"We change gears enough in the winter to feel good and rested when spring comes back around," she said.

Year round, they enjoy the drive-through at McDonald's, where they pick up their favorite potato dish: hot, golden french fries.

"We really like the fresh potato flavor," Klaren said.

Plus, they know they could be eating a potato grown on Koompin Brothers Farm.

When Cheryl's term as USPB chair ends next year, she will serve one more term as ex-officio. "After that, I hope to continue educating the world about hunger and potato goodness," she said.

Originally posted Tuesday, Jun. 15, 2010

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