The Columbia Basin is one of the most productive potato production regions in the country, and Bart Connors from Pasco, Wash., is one of the industry's valued leaders.
General manager of Skone and Connors Produce, he was elected chairman of the United States Potato Board during the March 2008 annual meeting.
Connors' sister, Molly, is also serving as a USPB board member from Washington. Together, they represent the third generation at Skone and Connors Produce, a growing, shipping and packing operation started in Wapato, Wash., during the 1940s by George Skone and Bert Connors. The expanding company continues as a family-run enterprise.
Skone and Connors produces about 2,500 to 3,000 acres of potatoes in the Columbia Basin region. Russet Norkotahs are the primary potato crop, but some red, white and yellow varieties are also grown and are seasonally available. Other crops include red and yellow onions, apples, wheat and alfala.
"This year our biggest challenge was a really cold spring. We didn't see the growth we needed until mid-June. Even though we never completely caught up, the quality of the 2008 crop turned out to be pretty good," Bart said.
Skone and Connors production begins with fall preparation. Most of the acreage is fumigated with Metam Sodium or Telon. For the past few years certain fields have been double fumigated to ensure pest-free production that can be shipped to Mexico or the Pacific Rim.
Planting begins around the second or third week in March. Connors likes the planting efficiency that can be maintained with four-row Lockwood Aire-cup planters. Harvest of the Norkotah Russets begins in late July and typically continues into the early fall.
Production of red, white and yellow varieties begins around July 4 and carries on through most of September.
In 1994, Skone and Connors joined with three potato grower/shippers from the northwest to develop Basin Gold Cooperative. Formed as a way to maintain customer service on a year-round basis, Basin Gold has been able to broaden its scope and adapt to an ever-changing marketing environment.
All of the member companies are involved in the growing, packing and shipping of fresh market potatoes on a national scale.
After harvest, each company will begin a winter-spring storage season. Each facility then takes turns staggering their packing and shipping times throughout the winter and the following spring.
A good balancing act is required to fulfill customer needs while maintaining enough product in storage to last until the following summer harvest.
"We are packing and shipping product about 10 months out of the year," Connors said. "The cooperative marketing structure is working very well for us."
He also appreciates working with other growers to supply the market. By doing this, Basin Gold can focus on providing quality product to their retail and foodservice customers.
"The potato industry is going through a period of exciting transition," he said. "Everybody is looking at different avenues in packaging, convenience and varietal work."
Connors is particularly appreciative of the tools and resources provided through USPB market research available to every grower and shipper.
"Consumers want new products. They aren't just interested in new varieties; they are interested in different-sized potatoes in quick and easy packaging. This is the reason we show up to work every day, to find these new ideas that appeal to their needs. More than ever before, creation of these is being drawn from the produce supplier," he said.
"Our customers are looking for us to bring these ideas forward, and if we can't deliver on this new paradigm, then someone will."
The USPB's Best In Class (BIC) Retail Marketing Program is a powerful initiative in helping growers connect fresh potatoes into the lives of convenience-minded consumers.
Connors is in the middle of his second term as a USPB board member. He served from 1996-2002 on the Domestic and International Marketing committees, first serving on the Executive Committee as the chairman of the International Marketing Committee from 2000-02. He also chaired the Domestic Marketing Committee from 2006-07.
"It has been a real honor to be the USPB chairman," Connors said. "I'm grateful for the opportunity to serve with so many capable industry members from all of the growing regions across America. With my fellow USPB leaders, we are interested in developing programs that will be truly beneficial to each member of the U.S. potato industry.
"The USPB is about creating long-term solutions to engage consumers. The nutrition program is a key component in relaying to both our domestic and international markets that `Potatoes are good for you.' "
As the USPB chairman, Connors is faced with the task of representing the needs of growers from all of the growing regions and every segment of the industry.
"We are often faced with difficult solutions," he said. "But it is important to weigh everybody's interests carefully and not to be too quick to take a side.
"My perspective is generally that of a fresh grower, but I work to put this away and take everybody's interests to heart and treat them like my own. Many growers and industry segments invest in the USPB. Grower dollars are hard to come by, and we've got to treat them as such and make the best possible decisions to affect the greatest good."
Connors also said, "Overall, the industry is at a crossroads. With increased production costs, it is particularly hard to pass anything on to another grower or industry segment, but the USPB has facilitated some important successes. The International Department has done an excellent job producing new opportunities in some challenging markets. The Domestic Marketing programs also continue to grow. BIC has successfully demonstrated what can be accomplished by having the right products and displaying these correctly to increase sales."