USPB chairman seeks to 'make the industry healthy'
Driving across the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, leaving a plume of dust in his wake, Sid Staunton points to a coyote running across a field of cut alfalfa on an ancient lake bed. In the distant northwest, the snow-capped extinct volcano Mount Shasta looms.
"It's our sentinel," said Staunton, pointing toward Shasta. "That's always our sign of what the day's going to be like. If she's sitting in the clear, it's going to be a great day and if she's got a big wind cloud on her, you better tie down the wheel lines."
On this late-September morning, the peak stands out against the cloudless blue sky as Staunton maneuvers his Chevy Silverado across the checkerboard of fields in the refuge.
"This is the Medicine Lake Highlands," he said, describing the geology of the area. Native Americans believe that the area has natural healing energy.
"We've been driving through U.S. Fish & Wildlife land," Staunton said. "It's the only place in the country where the refuge actually owns these lands, but leases them out for farming."
Staunton, 55, is a third- generation potato grower in the Klamath Basin. His grandfather, Edward (Web) Staunton came to the area in 1929, taking advantage of the homesteading opportunities offered to World
War I veterans. Starting with an 80-acre spread, Web grew his first potato crop in 1932.
In the 1950s, Staunton's father, John, and his uncle, Bill, took over and continued to grow and develop the northern California farm.
Staunton and his brothers, Marshall and Ed, began to run the farm in the early 1980s. Today they manage between 4,000 and 6,000 acres, depending on how much water is available in the Klamath Basin in a given year.
Staunton estimated they grew about 1,000 acres of potatoes for the fresh market last year: 650 of Russet Norkotahs and 120 of Russet BurbWanks for the conventional market and 50 acres of Klamath Pearls, a small white, 50 acres of red and 250 acres of organic russets for specialty markets.
The big rotation crop in the area is wheat, Staunton said.
"We do red spring wheat and we also do a white spring wheat and we do some alfalfa, we do some peppermint," he said. "We do roughly about 700 acres of dehydrated onions."
They started growing seed garlic two years ago with 25 acres, increasing it to 70 last year.
The Stauntons market their potatoes through a fresh pack operation called Cal-Ore Produce. Started in 1976, it currently has five families participating. Sid serves as president.
Sid and his wife, Tammie, will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in November. They have one daughter and two sons.
Their oldest, Kappie, her husband, Steven Keats, and their 2-year-old boy, Asher, live in Sacramento. Son Mark and his wife, Amy, and their two sons, Parker James and Sidney Graham, live in the basin. Curtis, their youngest, is completing his studies at Sierra College and plans on doing volunteer work in Central America this summer.
New challenge: USPB chair
As if Staunton didn't have enough to do, he was elected chairman of the United States Potato Board (USPB) this past March in Colorado Springs. Prior to his election,
Staunton had served as co-chair of the Domestic Marketing Committee. In 2010, he was co-chair of the Industry
Communications & Policy Committee and before that, chair of the Finance Committee.
"Like a lot of leaders, he brings a full package," said Tim O'Connor, USPB president and CEO. "He's been involved on the board for six years, so he's had a depth of experience.
"He's very thoughtful, he's a solid leader for the industry. He has a very well-thought-out approach to his role as chairman."
As chairman, Staunton expects to maintain continuity and keep a steady course, adhering to the goals of USPB's Long Range Plans.
"I think what I see as my mission is going to be to duplicate what the potato board's mission is and that is to drive demand and keep focusing on messages that we're getting out, that are starting to resonate with the public," Staunton said, "that potatoes are truly a healthy vegetable.
"That's the whole key to make this industry healthy. We have to have demand. That's where the potato board has been instrumental because domestically, we work on surveys so that the things that we develop, the other state commissions can use."
While Staunton extols USPB's efforts in promoting potatoes and lowering the public's net-negative attitude, he also recognizes and praises the role that state commissions have played in improving the potato's nutritional profile and in last year's fight to keep potatoes in the USDA school lunch program.
"Our programs are really helping, but the Idaho Potato Commission programs are really helping, the Washington Potato Commission programs are helping, the smaller states, Colorado and Oregon they run some stuff," said Staunton.
Staunton praises the USPB's international program and efforts at improving global demand for fresh, process and seed potatoes.
"94 percent of the world's population live outside the United States of America," he said. "It's a huge market, so when we talk about increasing demand, we have to talk about that because it's the most logical place to increase demand."
A personal goal for his year as chairman is to increase grower participation in the USPB and spread the word about the USPB throughout the potato industry.
"If I had a mission this year, it would be that everybody that serves on the board, to reach out and touch about three or four members and potato growers in their community that they represent and try to tell them more about the USPB," Staunton said.
Community: Local and global
In fact, "community" is a word that resonates with multiple meanings for Sid Staunton. Whether it's the Klamath Basin community he calls home or the community of potato growers that he represents as 2012 United States Potato Board chairman, Staunton is quietly stoic as he speaks about both.
Being able to meet with growers from Colorado, New Jersey, Washington, Idaho, Florida and Virginia and finding common ground is important, he said.
"We're all after the same things," he explained, referring to business and the communities where growers live and work. "We're all passionate about them."
Sid Staunton and his brothers are equally passionate about giving back to the Klamath Basin community. Every year, they donate to the Rotary Club's "First Harvest" program and the local food bank.
"I think we've been really fortunate to be in this area," Staunton said. "Through thick and thin, the community has still held itself together.
"We've got easy access to a food product. Potatoes - America's favorite vegetable. Can we spare a half a load here and there occasionally? Yeah, probably. And in times like this when it seems like the need is increasing, especially in this area, we've just looked at it as a way of helping out."
--Bill Schaefer, Spudman editor
Photos by Bill Schaefer:
Top: Sid Staunton confers with Nick Scott during fall harvest.
Bottom: Staunton and other farmers lease Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge acreage from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, but they can't spray in the refuge.