NPC’s new leadership team outlines focus for the future By Zeke Jennings

The National Potato Council is entering a new era.

On June 30, 2019, John Keeling will officially retire from his role as executive vice president and CEO after 17 years. Current Vice President of Public Policy Kam Quarles will assume Keeling’s position in title, but some changes are coming to the way the NPC’s small four-person staff is structured.

Mike Wenkel is joining the staff, only not to fill Quarles’ policy position, but in a new, broader role as chief operating officer. Wenkel has 24 years’ experience in agriculture, including the past seven as the executive director of the Michigan Potato Industry Commission.

“I think that is a great step forward,” Quarles said. “Mike brings a tremendous amount of capabilities in terms of all of the fundamental structural issues that you need to run a complex association to make sure it’s pushing forward in terms of servicing members and that it’s appropriately compliant with a host of different things we have to deal with.”

Quarles noted the growth and influence of the council since Keeling took over in 2002, when it was moved to Washington, D.C. “John just did amazing things in his time with the organization,” said Quarles, who added that he and Wenkel will take a “team approach” on addressing the goals of the council. That includes with Hollee Alexander, senior director of programs and events, and Hillary Hutchins, the manager of programs and events.

Wenkel has plenty of experience as an organization director and is looking forward in applying those managerial and leadership skills at a national level.

“I think a big part of it is really those principles of association management,” Wenkel said “At the end of the day, regardless of the organization — whether it’s community, state, regional or national — it’s about the things that keep the members up at night and how to address them.”

Quarles was officially hired by the NPC in 2016, but worked as a contract lobbyist for the organization for seven years prior to that. His 20 years’ of Washington, D.C. experience also includes stints with the National Council of Farm Cooperatives and the United Fresh Produce Association.

“This is a natural fit for me,” Quarles said. “I think I know the industry fairly well. … It’s a great opportunity really build on what John has started and to work with a great team with Mike, Hollee and Hillary.”

Areas of focus moving forward

As Wenkel alluded to, any issue that matters to the potato industry is an important focus for the NPC, whether it be regulations, labor or infrastructure. There is one topic that is especially worrisome these days and has the NPC’s full attention, however.

“The biggest one, I think by far and it keeps growing in magnitude, is trade,” Quarles said. “That obviously comprises several different countries, different trade agreements and trade disputes. … (The potato industry has) $700 million in vulnerability. We just have to get the trade agenda right.”

In June 2018, Mexico imposed a 20% tariff on frozen potatoes, as well as other products, in as a retaliation to the Trump administration’s decision to impose Section 232 steel and aluminum tariffs. Although leaders from the U.S., Canada and Mexico have agreed upon the USMCA trade agreement, a sequel to NAFTA, the U.S. Congress still has to ratify it. Quarles expressed concern that the USMCA won’t make it through Congress if the Section 232 tariffs remain in place.

“The message that we’re carrying to Capitol Hill is you’ve got to deal with the Section 232 (tariffs) to get the necessary votes and pass the agreement,” Quarles said. “We would like them to come off today, but they certainly would have to come off before that agreement heads to the Hill for a vote.”

Then there is, of course, the ongoing trade talks with China, which hit another snag when the Trump administration imposed more tariffs on Chinese imports on May 11. There has been a push in recent months, including a letter to President Trump signed by 37 members of Congress, to get fresh U.S. potatoes into China.

UPDATE: China hits frozen fries, dehy potatoes with additional tariffs

Unlike deals with Mexico and other Trans-Pacific Partnership nations, including Japan, where the struggle is to get deals on par with competing nations — essentially getting back revenue that has been lost — a deal with China would mean new business for U.S. potato exporters.

“Of all the various agreements and disputes, China is actually the one that holds the most promise,” Quarles said. “(If a deal) can actually open the market access that the Chinese have stymied on fresh and chip, that could easily vault China into one of our top export markets in a relatively short period of time.”

Domestically, Quarles said a big area of focus are federal feeding programs, such as the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, among several others.

“The government is going through this huge five-year effort to revise the dietary guidelines for Americans,” Quarles said. “That process is really important because it effectively sets the foundation that all of these feeding programs will utilize in making determinations about what commodities can participate and in what volume. … We want to make sure the science is right so we have the access that the nutrition of our product rightfully demands.”

Wenkel also noted topics like a viable guest worker program and infrastructure needs, such water and technology, as other areas the NPC will look to improve upon.

“We want to be more accessible to growers to across the country,” Wenkel said. “We’re looking at how we further increase our effectiveness of lobbying work by engaging growers at a higher level.”

RELATED: NPC’s 2019 Summer Meeting set for July 10-12 in Wisconsin

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