Researcher Mark Pavek’s message to growers: Always question what you’re doing
At its core, Mark Pavek describes his professional focus as “finding the smartest and most profitable agronomic practices and varieties for (Pacific) Northwest growers.” Pavek is a Research and Extension Potato Specialist at Washington State University and a principal investigator for the university’s Potato Research Group. He’s been with WSU since 2004, but also has experience as a field researcher in the private sector.
1: Could you share a little on your background?
I was born in American Falls, Idaho, during a snowstorm on the first day of spring. I grew up in a potato family in potato country — we lived and breathed potatoes. Ironically, all professional positions I took were in the potato industry. At 10, I started pulling wild rye in wheat fields for around $3.10 per hour. I was driving tractors by age 12. Although I had an interest in farming professionally, it wasn’t in the cards. Schooling at University of Idaho, followed by schooling at (WSU) directed me into my current position. I think I got it right.
2: What does your job entail?
A quote from Jack Welch, former and successful CEO of GE, brings my relationship with the NW potato industry into perspective: “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” Concisely, this is the mission of the WSU Potato Research Group. We facilitate learning for the NW potato industry relative to cultural management by conducting timely, relevant research, deciphering complex data sets, and translating the results into applied management recommendations. In addition to conducting research, training our future leaders (graduate students) is an essential and rewarding component of what I do.
3: What are you currently working on?
Potato variety development trials are always in the mix. Current agronomic research includes trials to prevent potato greening, improve irrigation management, fertilizer source and rate by variety, identify best seed size by variety and several others. We are also wrapping up some direction of planting research — the short story is that growers should avoid planting in the W/E direction due to inefficient use of the sun’s path.
4: What has been one of your more memorable research projects?
Conducting similar research trials in Washington, Cambridge, England and Wisconsin for my Ph.D. The differences in production practices and climate between the regions was eye-opening. Some of the best education I received was due merely to the fact that I got outside of the area I grew up in.
5: If you had one piece of advice for growers, what would it be?
Question everything you do in potato production. Ask “can I do it better?” or “why am I doing this?” If no science-based answer exists, let me know; I will research it.
6: What do you enjoy doing away from work?
Everything outdoors with my wife and Labrador retrievers — mostly hiking in the backcountry. We make our dogs pack in our wine, along with their stuff. No worries though, the extra weight doesn’t slow them down. I also bake artisan sourdough bread. When I find a loaf I like from a bakery, I tweak recipes at home until I produce a bread that I consider to be very similar. There is a lot of science in making bread, let alone sourdough bread. One of my favorites is whole wheat potato sourdough with chunks of yellow and or purple potatoes inside. I was forced into baking when our local baker passed away and I couldn’t find a similar potato bread anywhere.
7: What is your favorite way to eat potatoes?
French fried, of course. Does anyone ever crave baked, boiled or mashed?