Hollee Alexander named 2022 Spudwoman of the Year
When the National Potato Council (NPC) opted to move its headquarters to Washington, D.C. in 2001, its first move was to hire John Keeling as chief executive officer. The first person Keeling hired to fill out the NPC staff was Hollee Alexander.
It proved to be a sage personnel move.
Feb. 17, 2022 marked Alexander’s 20th anniversary with the council, making her the senior member of the five-person staff in terms of longevity. Her role has grown and evolved over time, first as a coordinator of meetings, grower relations and communications and now as the vice president of industry relations and events.
Then, in 2007, the NPC launched Potato Expo — a collection of education seminars, networking events and a trade show. It has grown to become the biggest event of the year for the U.S. potato industry, and it serves as a major revenue source for the NPC, which the industry relies on for advocacy and leadership.
Alexander, whose current title is vice president of industry relations and events, has been the biggest driving force behind planning and execution for the Expo since the start. Planning a single Expo takes years from start to finish, meaning Alexander is juggling multiple Expos at any given time, in addition to all of her other grower outreach and event planning work. She’s also heavily involved in planning non-Potato Expo meetings and coordinating the Potato Industry Leadership Institute (PILI) over the years.
Since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Alexander has been key in navigating the uncertainty of the 2021 and 2022 events. The 2021 Expo was turned into a virtual event, while the 2022 show returned to in-person, but with numerous logistical obstacles due to ongoing pandemic restrictions.
For all her work with Potato Expo and the National Potato Council over the past two decades, Hollee Alexander has been named the 2022 Spudwoman of the Year, which is proudly sponsored by Lockwood Manufacturing and UPL OpenAg.
“Her creativity has been on display over the entirety of the life of the Potato Expo, but none more than the past two years,” said NPC CEO Kam Quarles.
Britt Raybould of Raybould Brothers Farms in Idaho served several years on the NPC’s executive committee, including as its president in 2020. Raybould also was chair of the Potato Expo planning committee and is a former Spudwoman of the Year winner herself.
“I had a front-row seat to watch how Hollee handled the challenges we faced during 2020-21,” Raybould said. “In a short amount of time, Hollee led the effort to take a multi-day convention and turn it into a virtual event that delivered valuable information to growers and kept our industry partners engaged. She turned around in 2022 and pulled off a successful, in-person event, despite last-minute hiccups.
“Hollee’s service reflects so many of the things we value as potato growers. She continually looks for ways to do more for the industry, solve problems and lift up her colleagues. I remain incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to work with Hollee for so many years.”
Prior to the creation of Potato Expo, the NPC had separate meetings for various segments of the industry, such as chips and tablestock. Members complained of having to attend too many meetings, so the idea was formed to create sort of a one-stop shop for growers and other industry members to see more people and get more done with less travel.
“The first year, we were hoping for 500 attendees,” Alexander recalled. “We got 800. The second year we got 1,100. Then it was 1,300. Now, we’re getting about 2,000 attendees a year.”
The first part of planning a show is deciding on a location and securing its availability — Expo occurs in early to mid-January to coincide with farmers’ off season. The process for this starts years in advance. For example, Potato Expo 2023 will be held at the Gaylord Rockies Resort and Convention Center in Aurora, Colorado, just outside Denver. That site was picked and booked as early as 2020.
“We look at venues that are a good size, of course, but we want it to be when the potato industry gets there, it takes over. We want to be the big fish,” Alexander said. “Coming up here in 2023, we’ll basically be taking over the entire property. So, everybody that you see there, in the hallways, in the marketplace, in the restaurants — they’ll all be related to the potato industry. I think that’s where people get the biggest value in attending.”
Once the site is determined, Alexander and the NPC team start working on the trade show and sponsorship part of the event. That includes dealing with dozens, if not hundreds, of agricultural product and equipment vendors, service providers, seed potato distributors, state and regional associations and trade publications.
About six months out, the NPC starts soliciting presentations and speakers for the educational seminars and breakout sessions. Choices for speakers and topics are based on polling of NPC members. The latest technology has continually been a want over the years, Alexander said, but growers have become especially interested in policymaking and supply chain issues in recent years.
The process to nail down speakers can go right up until the week before the event, which includes the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
In retrospect, watching the event grow and change — which was intensified by the pandemic — has been gratifying for Alexander.
“Having the perspective now of being able to look back and see what a valuable meeting the Potato Expo is for the industry and knowing that I had a part in building something that fosters and strengthens those connections within the industry is rewarding,” she said.
When asked of her favorite personal memories, Alexander said traveling around the country and seeing the different potato-producing regions is among them. Of course, the relationships she’s developed are right up there as well.
“I’m fortunate, over the past 20 years, to have developed a lot of friendships with the growers. A lot of them I first met when I was part of the Potato Industry Leadership Institute and went on those programs,” Alexander said. “I remember being in North Dakota with negative 30-degree weather and having to scrape the inside of the windows on the van just to figure out where the next turn was. It’s always fun to remember those when we get back together.”
During warmer times, Alexander has enjoyed the annual summer meetings, which typically are in the home state of the current NPC president.
“Attending the summer meetings and getting to all the growing areas (around the U.S.) and seeing all the farms, taking my family with me on those trips was a lot of fun,” she said. “I remember going to Washington state and to Montana, when Dan Lake was president. We were able to take them (her children) and he set us up on Flathead Lake for a few days and we went hiking at Glacier.
“There have been a lot of fun memories over the years.”
The Hollee Alexander File
Job: Vice President of Industry Relations and Events for the National Potato Council
- Hometown: Alexander, nee Stubblebine, was born in the Netherlands into a military family. Her family settled in Virginia by the time she was in elementary school.
- Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science from Old Dominion University.
- Family: Husband, Andy, and daughters Rylee, 14, and Finley, 11.
- Hobbies: Biking and traveling with her family.
- Favorite way to eat potatoes: Baked with a little oil, salt and pepper.
Spudwoman of the Year past winners
2021: Nora Olsen, University of Idaho
2020: Britt Raybould, Raybould Brothers Farms
2019: Alison Sklarczyk, Sklarczyk Seed Farms
2018: Melanie Wickham, Empire State Potato Growers
2017: Addie Waxman, 1,4GROUP (now with McCain Foods)
Top photo: National Potato Council