Landmark Industry-Wide Meeting Focuses on 'Achieving A Sustainable Future'

New conference, tradeshow held in San Antonio, TX

Published in the April 2009 Issue Published online: Apr 30, 2009
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What started over two years ago as a simple, yet novel idea came to fruition in a remarkable and successful way during the first week of January 2009. POTATO EXPO 2009 was first conceived during the 2007 NPC Annual Meeting in Newport Beach, Calif. Growers like RD Offut Company's Keith McGovern expressed a desire to consolidate several meetings they were attending each winter-the NPC Seed Seminar, Fresh Potato Industry Outlook Summit and the Chip Seminar-in order to reduce the time and money needed in traveling to different locations across the country.

Consolidating these meetings into one industry-wide meeting also gained support from the many crop protection, equipment and diverse input suppliers servicing the needs of potato growers. Holding one large industry meeting would defray the costs of attending and exhibiting at several sector-specific meetings each year. A common tradeshow covering all production segments was readily supported.

Larger commodity groups, like corn and soybeans, have long held their "Commodity Classic"-a meeting growers in those groups would not dare miss if their intent is to stay abreast of issues, developments, products and technologies to help them maintain cutting-edge performance. Would a similar meeting deliver for the potato industry?

With careful planning and organization, by a grower steering committee representing seed, fresh, process and chip growers, a schedule comprising general and sector breakout sessions was arranged. "Achieving a Sustainable Future" was selected as the theme for POTATO EXPO 2009.

The general sessions were filled with speakers and topics of interest for all the growers in each segment. The seed, fresh, process and chip sector breakout schedules were filled with programs unique for these production segments.

Nearly 900 growers and allied agribusiness representatives from across all production sectors and regions in the United States, Canada and overseas gathered for POTATO EXPO 2009. The tradeshow had 65 exhibitors representing crop protectant, equipment, seed and a broad array of other companies.

SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTION

"Pioneering Sustainable Potato Production" was the title of Gene Kahn's presentation during the first general session. He is the vice president and global sustainability officer for General Mills Inc. in Golden Valley, Minn. Prior to this appointment, in 1971 Kahn founded Cascadian Farm Inc., a vertically integrated farming and marketing company.

Potato production for fresh and processing markets was the major crop of Cascadian Farm. Kahn took this farm from its inception as a small organic farm to a major producer of branded organic farms known as Small Planet Foods. He later led the acquisition and integration of Small Planet for General Mills.

"Sustainability is a broad, cultural trend that won't simply go away," Kahn said. "This trend should provide broad, mainstream opportunities, not just niche market solutions. Sustainable products should be made affordable for everyday people.

"If agriculture does not lead in this endeavor, it will be victimized by it. Sustainability is all about common sense and making continual improvements.

"We can build more trust and faith in our customers by accepting and acknowledging we have areas which need to be improved on. It's okay to admit weaknesses. We don't need to be perfect."

Kahn pointed out how well known companies like Toyota acknowledge they do not have all the answers for sustainability, but they show they are working toward a sustainable future. By making this admission, they gain credibility and are recognized by their customers to be valued contributors to society. People identify Toyota as a socially responsible company truly contributing to society.

"By quantifying your business' environmental improvements, you can develop a competitive advantage," Kahn said. "For environmental stewardship to connect with customers, it needs to be a compelling message they can relate to. Consumers do not care about your problems in the field." The improvements must relate to the everyday lives of consumers.

ECONOMIC OUTLOOK

Dr. Michael Boehlje, a distinguished professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and the Center for Food and Agricultural Business at Purdue University, presented, "The Changing Farm Economy: Managing in Turbulent Times."

He directed his remarks regarding general farm operations and dealing with recession facing the United States. One result from the real estate and finance crisis is that commercial lenders will become more cautious at determining the creditworthiness of their customers.

"The first phase of a recession is when a lot of properties are not selling," Boehlje said. "Right now, there is an 80 percent probability of a 10 percent decline in land values.

"Are we returning to a scenario like that of the farm financial crisis of the 1980s? The answer is no. Agriculture is in a much better position going into this recession than during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The debt-to-asset ratios of individual operators are generally better today than they were during the 1980s."

All things considered, the factors that created the problems of the 1980s are not present in today's farming operations, but a decline in land values is likely, and there will be fewer highly leveraged land purchases. Boehlje said, "Agriculture won't have the same challenges that other industries will be having, but you will need to work harder at documenting and selling your creditworthiness to your lender."

Despite the economic challenges facing the United States, Boehlje remains optimistic about agriculture commodities and markets. He cited the recent ethanol boom and its effect on corn.

"The demand for corn increased three billion bushels in three years," he said. "That is a 27 percent increase in corn supply compared to nine and a half years ago. In the last three years, it has been the supply and demand of oil that has driven the supply of corn. Only a surplus supply of ethanol will cause the corn supply to level off or decline."

Using his economic models, Boehlje shows corn trend yields will increase 1.5 percent per year for the 2009 through 2014 crop years-it will take several years for production to catch up with demand.

CHARLIE WILSON

The keynote speaker for POTATO EXPO 2009 was Charlie Wilson, the former Texas Democratic United States Congressman from District Two and inspiration for the book and movie Charlie Wilson's War. There are few originals in American politics, and Wilson exemplified unique service to his country and fellow citizens at a time when most of our elected officials were beginning to look and sound alike.

"Good Time Charlie," as he is known by his friends and associates, served from 1973 until 1997, and played a pivotal role in defeating Communism and bringing an end to the Cold War. While a Congressman, he traveled to Afghanistan, met with the Mujahideen-the country's remote and elusive freedom fighters who were striving to topple the Soviet supported communist regime from their government.

When Wilson first visited the Mujahideen, they were fighting and inflicting casualties against the Russian forces with primitive weapons such as WWI-era British Enfield Rifles. The experiences and observations with these people struggling to restore their freedom and their country led Wilson to sympathize with their plight.

Returning to the United States, Wilson established ties with CIA agents who also had a vested interest in the people of Afghanistan. He formed a covert team of operatives and set forth to obtain resources to aid the Mujahideen in their conflict. Wilson was able to do this by reallocating residual funds from the federal budget.

Not one American life was shed in this conflict with the Soviet Union, and the Communists were forced to relinquish the grip they had on Afghanistan. The outcome of this war helped to topple Communism in Russia and around the world.

The next POTATO EXPO will be in Orlando, Fla. Log onto www.potato-expo.com for further details, and plan now to attend.

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