2023 Spudwoman of the Year a master of connecting the dots
Throughout her career, Jeanne Debons has mastered the art of working with people.
Debons, the 2023 Spudwoman of the Year, has held varied jobs directly and indirectly connected to the potato industry in the past four decades. Most notably, she served as executive director of the Potato Variety Management Institute from 2006 until her February retirement, helping build that organization into a key informational and financial resource for growers and research universities.
All her roles, which also include more than 10 years working in plant pathology as well as teaching botanical drawing out of her Bend, Oregon studio, have one thing in common, say colleagues and friends: her ability to rally others around a common cause and inspire meaningful contributions.
“To me, Jeanne is kind of a modern- day polymath,” said Fred Crowe, a former plant pathologist who worked with Debons in his role as director of the Central Oregon Experiment Station at Oregon State University (OSU) in the early 1990s. “She can literally do anything and do it very well.”
The path to potatoes
After obtaining her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the State University of New York, Debons moved to the West Coast and completed a Ph.D. in botany and plant pathology from OSU in 1986. She worked in OSU professor Mary Powelson’s lab before joining Crowe’s Extension staff as a lab technician, albeit a “quite overqualified” one, Crowe said.
“She didn’t come with a background in potatoes or agriculture per say. But she came and she took to it like a duck takes to water,” said Powelson, now retired from OSU, where the Mary L. Powelson Fund supports the school’s botany and plant pathology field laboratory.
Debons worked with Powelson in the Columbia River Basin, often spending five hours or more in 90-to-100° heat, on research projects including identifying and treating potato early dying in the region.
“It required that she had some stamina and endurance. Under those conditions, you can imagine, personalities can get sharp when people are exhausted,” Powelson said. “But she always was cool. … She has a lot of self-discipline. When she’s on a task, she can focus on it without being diverted very easily.”
That discipline served Debons well in the role where she made her most memorable mark on the potato industry. When she became executive director of the Potato Variety Management Institute in 2006, she realized her first duty was to define the job.
Before the institute’s creation, there was no organized collection of royalties and annual license fees from potato seed growers in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Debons’ people skills were immediately put to the test when she had to explain to folks that that would be changing.
“In the beginning, the big growers didn’t have to pay royalties, so my first job was to communicate to people how important it was to make sure that we got funds going back to the research programs so that it would maintain them,” Debons said. “The first couple of years, I had to listen to a lot of disappointed seed growers. … Several researchers told me this isn’t going to work: ‘We’ve never done this. Why should it work now?’ It was kind of a personal triumph to show them it would work.”
In 2022, PVMI collected more than $1.3 million in royalties and fees, which were remitted to universities in the Tri-State Potato Research and Breeding Program.
Debons also oversaw all aspects of corporate management at PVMI, which helps promote and market new varieties spawned from the program, including the management of the website.
“More than just collecting money and giving it back to the universities, it was an information hub,” Debons said. “Not only does it give you information about the varieties, it also takes the information from all the seed growers, so people can source their seed there or see who’s growing what or get in touch with other people.”
Debons recalled a conversation with a grower in Oregon who was on his tractor, planting crops and unable to remember how much nitrogen to apply. She quickly found the answer to his question so he could continue working in the field.
“The fantastic thing about Jeanne is that she meets people exceptionally well,” said Jeff Harper, an Idaho potato grower and longtime PVMI board member. “She’s very positive, and she knew the importance of making personal contact with everybody she did business with. This could all be done on the internet with a credit card, but that personal contact — that’s what gets your collections done, not a sales pitch.
“I don’t know a seed grower that doesn’t know Jeanne Debons, and that was just crucial in her job.”
After learning the finer points of potatoes at OSU, Debons left the country for a marketing job in London. During her time overseas, she earned a diploma in botanical illustration from the English Gardening School.
“I’ve always liked plants and I tried to do art,” said Debons, who first began drawing plants during an undergraduate botanical identification course. Intending to eventually return to the Pacific Northwest, she hoped to put her artistic skills to use there.
“I thought, there isn’t anything like botanical illustration out there right now,” Debons said. “I’d love to bring it back and teach people. That was my dream.”
Debons continues to live out that dream, teaching classes from her home studio as well as at Central Oregon Community College a few times a year in between RV trips with her husband. Her step-by-step instruction method is intended to be approachable and repeatable.
Debons’ work, available online at jeannedebons.com, covers all varieties of plants, from acorns to amaryllis. She finds painting potatoes presents a particular challenge.
“I have to grow them out so that I can actually view them. I work from real life,” she said. “So I find them challenging in that they’re hard to get ahold of sometimes, especially the varieties you want to use. But once you’ve done that, it’s just a matter of spending the time with it and understanding it.”
Debons’ goal is to provide a three- dimensional glimpse of a plant in all stages of growth, “to portray it in a way that someone would flip the page and they think that’s the actual plant there,” she said. “Photographs are good, but they’re very two-dimensional. Also, you can show a plant in a lot of different stages, where you can’t necessarily do that with a photograph.”
Powelson, who continues to keep in touch with Debons, finds her botanical art “just beautiful” and another example of how Debons finds ways to achieve her goals while helping others reach theirs.
“She is a facilitator. There are people that can facilitate things and then there are those that are obstructionist. She’s more of a team player,” Powelson said.
Debons’ art kept her connected to her scholarly plant roots even when her career took a different turn, and now, it keeps her in touch with the potato industry she never really left.
“It’s such a lovely industry. It’s small enough that everyone knows everybody, and people appreciate what you do. … When I came back, people would see me, and they’d say, ‘Jeanne Debons? Is that you?’ ” Debons said. “I had 14 years when I was doing other jobs, but when I came back, it was like the potatoes called me.”