Potato Industry Leadership Institute trains tomorrow’s potato leaders
For more than seven decades, the grower-led, grower-supported National Potato Council has thrived due to the hard work and participation of leaders throughout the U.S. potato supply chain. To honor and enhance that legacy in representing the policy interests of the U.S. potato industry, NPC remains committed to supporting and nurturing the next generation of those volunteer leaders.
That’s where our Potato Industry Leadership Institute (PILI) plays a vital role. Not only does the PILI program serve as an introduction to NPC’s policy and regulatory efforts in Washington, D.C., it provides potato growers and industry representatives training and professional development they can take back to their states and business operations.
From Feb. 20-27, this year’s PILI class consisted of 22 outstanding professionals from Maine to Oregon (and 10 states in between) who came together to learn from some of the best minds in the industry.
The diversity of the group included everyone from a fifth-generation farmer in Washington state to a first-generation farmer in Pennsylvania, and from a CEO of an Idaho marketing group to a field technician from Michigan State University. They were led by two grower-leaders, Ben Sklarczyk of Johannesburg, Michigan, and Blake Matthews of Burley, Idaho — both PILI graduates.
This year’s PILI — a nine-day immersion exploring multiple facets of the potato industry — started in Detroit and culminated in Washington, D.C., where the class applied its training to participate in NPC’s 2020 Potato D.C. Fly-In.
During their time in Michigan, PILI participants toured Sklarczyk Seed Farm, a hydroponic operation that provides mini-tubers to commercial seed farms. They also visited Techmark, a company specializing in storage and production systems, and toured Michigan State University’s research farm and lab facility.
“I’m new to the potato industry so for me it was almost like a boot camp,” said participant Susannah Cooper, an agronomy manager for McCain Foods in Easton, Maine. “I’ve been learning about the processing component, but I got to better understand the challenges of seed growers.”
“The best thing I learned was about seed potato production and all that goes into the research end to produce new varieties,” said Mitchell Searle, a processing potato grower from Burley, Idaho. “I didn’t realize all that went into that. I’m definitely going to take that home and analyze what we’re doing and what we can do better as far as sourcing our seed.”
The class then flew to Washington, D.C., for three days of presentation skills, leadership, media and policy training. As part of the Fly-In, they heard the latest in political forecasting from famed political analyst Charlie Cook, learned about the industry’s policy priorities and joined their fellow growers in advocating those priorities directly to government officials and their members of Congress.
Laurie Richards, who oversaw the presentation, leadership skills and media training classes, taught the class how to shape and share messages about the importance of potatoes to consumers and local economies.
“This program is not only about helping participants be good leaders in the industry, it’s also about helping them articulate how they contribute to society as a farm, an operation, or a processor,” Richards said. “The better they are at articulating the real value of potatoes — financially and nutritionally — the better off the industry will be.”
Cody Fazio, who works on the family farm north of Portland, Oregon, growing chipping potatoes, said the public speaking workshop was challenging at first.
“I’m not one who is great with public speaking, but the class really got me out of my shell,” Fazio said. “By the end I was able to give a speech that I’d never be able to do previously.
“I realized there’s a lot I can talk about when I’m passionate about it.”
Before accompanying their state delegations to Capitol Hill, class members were taught about the policy issues facing the industry, including agricultural labor reform, continued funding for potato research, transportation infrastructure funding, increased truck weight limits and expanding international market access for potato exports.
Ubaldo Martinez, who grows 850 acres of potatoes in Washington for the processing market, said his PILI experience taught him that the problems he experiences are not unique to his farm. “We all share the same problems, but when you’re back home you think you’re the only one that’s going through them. In reality, we all share the same issues, we’re all fighting for the same bills to pass, we all have the same priorities in common,” he said.
To anyone considering applying for PILI, Laurie Widdowson, marketing and development manager at CSS Farms, advised not to hesitate. “It’s a great investment in you. It’s a great investment in your community that you’re going to take these skills back to. And it’s a great opportunity to meet some other wonderful people in the potato industry.”
To raise the funds necessary to continue the PILI program, the new Potato Leadership, Education, & Advancement Foundation (LEAF) was launched at the 2020 Potato Expo. For more information on how to donate to Potato LEAF and financially support future leaders of the potato industry, visit pleaf.org.
Top photo: Bottom row, from left, Susannah Cooper, Maine; Casey Folson, Minnesota; Michael Wolter, Wisconsin; Tom Nilson, North Dakota; Sarah Noller, Colorado. Second row, Ubaldo Martinez, Washington; Laurie Widdowson, Nebraska; John Morrison, Washington. Third row, Cliff Shaw, Colorado; Carl Long, Pennsylvania; Jace Jensen, Idaho. Fourth row, Austin Ochoa, Washington; Jason Allen, Idaho; Doug Posthuma, Wisconsin; Jason Kimm, Montana. Fifth row, Cody Fazio, Oregon; Damen Kurzer, Michigan; Derek Friehe, Washington; Ben Harris, Colorado; Guthry Laurie, Michigan. Sixth row, Mitchell Searle, Idaho; Ben Sklarczyk, Michigan (Grower Leader); Blake Matthews, Idaho (Grower Leader).