Feb 12, 2020
Alsum, Okray inducted into Wisconsin Hall of Fame

The Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) has elected Larry Alsum and Dick Okray to its Hall of Fame.

The WPVGA Hall of Fame honors lifetime achievement in the development of the state’s potato industry. Awards were presented at an annual awards banquet, held during the WPVGA Grower Education Conference & Industry Show in Stevens Point on Feb. 5, 2020.

Larry Alsum headshot
Larry Alsum

Alsum is president and CEO of Alsum Farms & Produce in Friesland, Wisconsin. He grew up on his family’s rural Wisconsin dairy farm near Randolph and is the oldest of eight children. After graduating from Randolph High School, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

In 1981, Larry became the general manager of Alsum Produce after his cousin, Glen Alsum, who started the business in 1973, died in a plane crash. This year, Larry will be completing his 39th year as president and CEO of the company.

Under Larry’s leadership, Alsum Farms & Produce has grown into an integrated group of companies involved in the production, packaging, marketing and shipping of potatoes and onions, and the wholesale distribution of a full line of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Larry feels privileged to continue his family’s farming tradition, with his current operation growing nearly 2,700 acres of potatoes along the lower Wisconsin River Valley in Arena and in the Central Sands region in Grand Marsh. He values the opportunity to work alongside his two daughters — Heidi and Wendy — and their dedicated staff of 200 full-time employees.

RELATED: Alsum Farms & Produce has quadrupled potato production over past 30 years

In addition to his work at Alsum Farms & Produce, Alsum has been involved in numerous professional organizations and served in leadership roles for the WPVGA, National Potato Council, Potatoes USA and Wisconsin Institute of CPAs. Alsum is a past president of the WPVGA board, past chairman of the Potatoes USA board and most recently past president of the National Potato Council. He also has served on education boards, church council, as a Sunday school teacher, volunteer fireman, chamber of commerce and on the Second Harvesters (Madison food bank) advisory committee.

Alsum’s favorite part about farming is working with great people and developing relationships with customers and suppliers. He also enjoys working in nature and seeing how we can interact to produce food in harmony with our environment and learning how to be good stewards of our soil, water and natural resources.

Larry and his wife, Paula, will celebrate 45 years of marriage this summer. They have been blessed with five children: Tim, Heidi, Wendy, Chad and Noah and nine grandchildren. Larry enjoys biking, boating, triathlons and travel.

Richard “Dick” Okray

Okray was born Oct. 24, 1958, in Stevens Point. The son of Joseph and Patricia Okray, he graduated in 1977 from Pacelli High School. In 1981, he taught English in Cali, Colombia, and in 1982, he graduated from UW-Stevens Point with bachelor’s degrees in economics and Spanish.

He has been employed since 1982 at Okray Family Farms in Plover, growing 7,750 acres of row crops, specializing in fresh channel potatoes. His current title and position are president and sales.

The national potato industry has benefited greatly from the leadership of Okray. He served on the Executive Committee of the U.S. Potato Board (now known as Potatoes USA) and has served as a potato industry ambassador from the United States, attending several of the World Potato Congress events in China, Scotland and New Zealand.

Okray Family Farms received the National Potato Council’s Environmental Stewardship Award in 2016 for outstanding achievement in the area of pesticide risk reduction. Active in his community and industry, Okray has served on numerous organizations and boards, including the Wisconsin Migrant Labor Council; Saint Michael’s Foundation; United Potato Growers of Wisconsin and the United Potato Growers of America; Intevation Food Group; and the Edward J. Okray charitable Foundation.

Dick served two terms, including one as chairman of the International Committee, for the U.S. Potato Board. He has also served on the Wisconsin Potato Industry Board since 2015, and currently holds the position of vice president of the WPIB. Last year, he became a board member of the Farming for the Future Foundation.

When asked about his awards and honors, he said, “I am honored to know so many great people in the best industry in the world.”

Dick has been married to his wife, Carol, for 36 years. They have three adult children, Xerxes, Hannah, and Max.

Gumz elected WPVGA president

The WPVGA Board of Directors has elected Rod Gumz of Gumz Muck Farms in Endeavor as its president for 2020. Gumz (District 3) succeeds Wes Meddaugh of Heartland Farms, Hancock, who served as Board President in 2019.

  • Bill Guenthner of Guenthner Farms., Antigo (District 1), was elected vice president.
  • Meddaugh was elected secretary.
  • Mike Carter of Bushmans’ Inc., Rosholt (District 2), was elected treasurer.

The rest of the WPVGA Board of Directors includes: John Bustamante of Wysocki Family of Companies, Bancroft (District 2); Dan Kakes of Kakes Farms, Antigo (District 1); Charlie Mattek of J.W. Mattek & Sons, Deerbrook (District 1); Alex Okray of Okray Family Farms, Plover (District 2); and Eric Wallendal of Wallendal Supply, Grand Marsh (District At-Large).

As part of the Wisconsin Seed Potato Improvement Association (WSPIA) annual Meeting on Jan. 29, its board of directors elected Jeff Fassbender of Seidl Farms, Deerbrook, president for 2020. Fassbender succeeds Dan Kakes of Kakes Farms, Bryant, who served as Board President in 2019. J.D. Schroeder of Schroeder Brothers Farms, Inc., Antigo, was elected vice president; and Jeff Suchon, Bushman’s Riverside Ranch, Inc., Crivitz, was elected secretary/treasurer.

In addition to the three board officers, the other two WSPIA Board of Directors are Roy Gallenberg of Gallenberg Farms, Bryant, and Matt Mattek of J.W. Mattek & Sons, Deerbrook.

More honors

Cliff and Carole Gagas of Gagas Farms Inc., Stevens Point, were named the WPVGA Volunteers of the Year. Cliff is a third-generation farmer, and Cliff and Carole’s son, Curtis, represents the fourth generation working on Gagas Farms, established in 1930. Carole started helping with bookkeeping at Gagas Farms about seven years ago. Carole was president of the Wisconsin Potato Growers Auxiliary Board for six years, and Cliff has been on the Wisconsin Potato Industry Board for many years, including a term as president of the Board. Cliff is also a past board member of the United Potato Growers of Wisconsin

Jeff Fassbender was named WPVGA Young Grower of the Year. Jeff is a fourth-generation farmer at Seidl Farms in Antigo. After graduating from Antigo High School, in 2008, Jeff went on to study Agribusiness at Fox Valley Technical College. He then returned to his family’s farm in Deerbrook where he resumed working and taking on new responsibilities over the next five years.

In February 2015, he lost his father and vice president of Seidl Farms to cancer. As his father’s successor, Jeff assumed the responsibilities of vice president later that year and remains in that role today. He is particularly proud of the farm’s reputation of producing clean, quality seed and takes pride in his role in the farm’s crop production plan, which includes an innovative nutrient management plan, producing healthy and sustainable crops.

The WPVGA Researcher of the Year Award went to Paul Bethke, Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Horticulture. Bethke attended UW-Madison where he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. In 2006, Bethke joined the potato team in Madison as a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His research is focused on how genetics and the environment influence potato tuber quality, especially as it relates to quality out of storage. His group is currently working on projects related to diploid potatoes, the appearance of red skinned potatoes, the formation and consequences of lenticels, aerial imaging, stem-end chip defect and potato virus Y.

The WPVGA Associate Division presented the Associate Division Business Person of the Year Award to Dale Bowe of Wisconsin Public Service. Dale grew up on a large dairy farm in Chippewa Falls, is a 1974 graduate of Chippewa Falls High School and holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from UW-Madison. He is a lifetime member of the Future Farmers of America and the Wisconsin Alumni Association, a member of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers, serves on the International Association for Electrical Inspectors, and is a graduate of the Portage County Business Council (PCBC) Foundation Leadership Program and the Wisconsin Rural Leadership Program. In 2011, he received the Outstanding Contribution to Agriculture Award from the PCBC. He has been employed by Wisconsin Public Service for 32 years, currently as a senior agriculture consultant.

Dale has been an outstanding volunteer for the WPVGA Associate Division for many years.  He has served two terms on the Associate Division Board of Directors and continues to serve on the WPVGA Water Task Force and the Spud Bowl Committee, and has helped the WPVGA governmental affairs efforts by volunteering to lobby in Madison as part of the annual Ag Day at the Capitol events.

He has also helped the WPVGA Promotions Committee by volunteering at Spudmobile events and does tremendous work each year in helping to coordinate the Oshkosh Farm Show. In July 2019, Dale worked tirelessly when a major storm knocked out power throughout the potato and vegetable growing region. He was instrumental in helping to restore power for irrigation systems to avert a major crop failure.

The Agri-Communicator Award for excellence in communication and dedicated service in presenting a positive message about the agricultural industry was presented to the family of the late Jerry Knutson of Almond. Jerry was a 1983 graduate of Tri-County High School, attended Mid-State Technical College and took the Farm and Industry Short Course at UW-Madison. He treasured working on the family farm alongside his father

In 2000, Jerry started Oasis Irrigation of Plainfield, becoming a successful owner and operator. He was instrumental in helping the potato and vegetable industry pass the recent high capacity well bill into Wisconsin law, testifying at the Wisconsin Senate hearing in Madison, and his testimony was outstanding. He received the most questions from the legislators and had intelligent answers for everything they asked. His effective communication went a long way toward convincing the legislature to pass that bill into law.

Jerry had many passions in his life and family was top on the list. He treasured having his three boys working by his side. He married Kathy Jo Wilson on Aug. 13, 1994, and together they had four wonderful children, Chase, Lindsay, Dawson and Preston, all of whom accepted the award on his behalf. Jerry passed away on Dec. 14, 2019, as a result of a snowmobile accident in Michigan. He was a great industry supporter and will be sadly missed.

A special WPVGA Industry Appreciation Award was presented to Nick Laudenbach, president of Fencil Urethane Systems, Wisconsin Rapids, who has been with the company for over eight years. Owned by Nick’s father-in-law, Butch Fencil, Fencil Urethane Systems has been finding innovative solutions to meet the insulation needs of businesses and homeowners throughout Wisconsin since 1972.

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