May/June 2024
Spudwoman 2024: A next-level leader By Melinda Waldrop, Managing Editor

Kelly Turner is growing the potato industry in Michigan and beyond

However agricultural producers in Michigan and throughout the country communicate, chances are Kelly Turner speaks their language.

Turner, in her fifth year as executive director of the Michigan Potato Industry Commission (MPIC), works to maintain a healthy potato industry in the state — which ranked eighth in the nation with almost 1.9 billion pounds of potatoes produced in 2022 — and beyond. Her efforts, including spearheading a recent report quantifying the industry’s value to Michigan, are why she is Spudman’s 2024 Spudwoman of the Year.

Turner is no stranger to agriculture. She grew up on a central Michigan farm, baling hay beside her father, and her career has included 11 years with the Michigan Farm Bureau. Still, the MPIC role she took over in August 2019 has proven to be a learning-on-the-job experience.

“When I first started, I knew practically nothing about potatoes, but the industry has been wonderful in helping to teach me all the really important things that I need to understand,” Turner said.

These days, the length of her to-do list raises eyebrows, as she discovered during a recent conversation about her job with a grower.

“I started listing all the things we’re working on, and they were like, ‘Oh, that makes my stomach hurt,’” Turner said.

Kelly Turner outside the Michigan Potato Industry Committee office in East Lansing, Michigan. Photo by Zeke Jennings.

That voluminous list includes working on Specialty Crop Block Grant applications and administration, serving on the state’s Water Use Advisory Council, organizing the annual Michigan Winter Potato Conference and helping to create MI Ag CORE (Communication, Organization, Relationships, and Engagement), a year-long leadership program Michigan agriculture industry members now in its third year. Turner also works closely with the research community at the Michigan State University Extension, including its potato breeding program.

“She’s a leader. She’s personable, a good listener,” said Chris Long, an Extension specialist in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences at MSU who leads the Potato Outreach Program, a collaboration between MSU and MPIC. “We joke a little bit about the awareness that’s needed to move all the puzzle pieces around to make them fit, or how one thing affects something else. She has the capacity to understand the interconnectedness of things.”

Empowering with energy

A secret to Turner’s success is her organizational prowess, honed through her 2020 completion of a doctoral program in organizational leadership and development as well as her day-to-day experience shepherding her two children to events, including robotics competitions and 4-H shows.

“She’s on top of stuff. I mean, she’s a mom,” Long said. “She’s incredibly gifted in the ability to manage and empower.

“Just her ability to connect to people is huge, on multiple levels. Not only does she work with state government, but growers and researchers around the country and world. We’re all in our little worlds, and we do speak different languages, but she is very good at innovating across those diverse environments.”

2024 Spudwoman of the Year Kelly Turner. Photo by Doug Milligan Photography.

David Douches, a professor for MSU and director of the MSU Potato Breeding and Genetics Program, is an MPIC member and was part of the interview process when Turner was hired.

“Kelly immediately brought energy and ideas to the industry,” Douches said via email. “She did not have a background in potato, but she invested time in meeting with the potato growers and other partners in the Michigan industry.”

Michigan’s potato industry includes nearly 80 commercial potato farmers, shippers and processors. One of those is Phil Gusmano, vice president at Better Made Snack Foods, who also met Turner during her MPIC interview process.

“She had a really good energy about her,” Gusmano said. “You could see from her past experiences that she likes to hit the ground running. Have you ever heard the expression herding cats? She’s very good at doing that.”

Gusmano credited Turner with catalyzing the creation of “No Small Potatoes: The Economic Contribution of the Michigan Potato Sector,” a report by MSU economists released Feb. 20 by MPIC. The report found the potato industry generates $2.5 billion each year to the state’s gross domestic product, including almost $1.5 billion in direct economic activity stemming from growing, processing, wholesaling and retailing potato and potato products.

“I don’t think, if it wasn’t for her, that that study would have been done,” Gusmano said. “That helps to influence our state legislators and everybody along those lines to see how important ag is — and more specifically, how important the potato is — for the state of Michigan.

“Her political skills are well-honed. Being able to talk with people in a language they understand and meet them at their level has really given her the skills that she needs. The time she has invested into the industry has paid dividends, not only in the state but across the country.”

Making key connections

Turner, who described herself as having a “black thumb,” said she is satisfied ironing out the behind-the-scenes details to make potato growers successful.

“I am more than happy to work on the legislative and the regulatory and the marketing needs of the industry so that growers can do what they do best, because I really appreciate being able to go to the store and have potatoes and potato chips and potato products,” she said.

A key to advancing the potato industry is proving tangible evidence of its value, Turner said, which was the genesis of February’s economic impact report.

“We’re going to need to convince some people that the industry is worth investing in,” she said. “You can’t do that if you can’t show them how much the industry is worth. We really needed some statistics and some information to basically go to the bank and be like: ‘Here’s the things we have for collateral. We want you to invest in us.’”

Turner’s appreciation of agriculture was ingrained early. Her great-grandparents, grandparents and parents farmed, and her semi-retired father still helps friends with harvests and monitors agricultural commodity trading, she said.

2024 Spudwoman of the Year Kelly Turner is executive director of the Michigan Potato Industry Commission. Photo by Doug Milligan Photography.

“I have a base understanding of agronomy and the language,” she said. ”I think we forget that we talk differently than the general public does. They don’t really have an understanding of where their food comes from. As we continue to get generations away from knowing grandpa who had a farm or anyone in the family who does anything with farming, I think that’s going to become more and more of a challenge.”

The oldest of three sisters, Turner worked the fields and attended equipment sales alongside her father. But what was second nature to her turned some heads when she joined MPIC.

Turner remembered walking into a national meeting soon after taking the job. More than a hundred people filled the room — most of them men.

Walking to dinner later, Turner overheard a comment made by an older man.

“One of them said: ‘Well, if they were going to hire a woman, at least they could’ve hired someone who was easy on the eyes,’” Turner said. “Obviously it stuck with me, because I remember it, but I kept thinking to myself, well, I’m going to outwork anybody here, and I’m going to ensure that I’m showing my value to the folks who have believed in me enough to put me in this position.”

Turning that experience into an empowering moment exemplified what Turner sees as one of her most important roles: bridging gaps and fostering communication between agricultural stakeholders, including regulatory agencies that oversee research funding and farmers who feed their communities.

“Helping people to understand the ag community has helped me to excel,” she said. “They’re my people. I come from the same culture. I’m cut from the same cloth.”

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