It wouldn't be unusual for a grower to move on to take the reins of his grower organization or even find his way into politics. But Mike Carter, now CEO of Bushman's Inc., a potato growing and marketing company headquartered in Rosholt, Wis., did all that backward.
He now oversees the production of nearly 300,000 cwt of potatoes a year, but he'll be the first to tell you he's never even driven a tractor.
"I very well could be the antithesis of the traditional farmer," he said. "I did not grow up on a farm. I grew up in the industrial town of Beloit, Wis."
Carter's father was a cable splicer for the local phone company, and his mother worked for a podiatrist. He graduated with a history degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1988 with his sights set on law school.
Not in a position to start law school, however, he secured a job as a page in the Wisconsin state capitol, fetching coffee and making copies.
It didn't take him long, though, to work his way into a legislative office, and he spent the next 10 years working for four different Wisconsin state senators in various capacities, including clerk of the Senate Financial Institutions Committee, policy analyst for the majority leader and chief of staff for a member of the Joint Finance Committee.
"The fact that I wound up in politics is only slightly more amusing than the fact I stayed in that business for 10 years," he says. "I was never a political junky; in fact, if anything, I would have considered myself apolitical."
His work in the Legislature, however, caught the attention of the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers' Association, which invited him to head up its government affairs program. So in 1998, he moved to Weston, Wis., and set up office with the organization at its Antigo, Wis., location.
"This sounded like a great opportunity for me. I could use the knowledge gained by working in the Legislature and the relationships I had established there and put them to good use for an industry and organization that was widely respected as a progressive agricultural organization," Carter says.
"The funny part was that I had little to no agricultural experience," he adds. "I highlighted that in my interview with grower leaders and was told that wasn't a concern and that I could learn ag. I had no idea how much I had to learn at that point."
For the next three years, Carter worked as director of government affairs and grower relations under two executive directors.
"During that period, I learned all I could about growing potatoes and other vegetables," he says. "I learned about potato politics and about contracting and research."
He must have been a good student, because he was soon promoted to executive director, responsible for coordinating contract negotiations with McCain Foods, the WPVGA's research program, chip division, grower education and the Healthy Grown Program while retaining his duties as head of the government affairs program.
"I was also ultimately responsible for our marketing program and grower communications, although very capable people were on staff to be point people on these important areas," he adds.
Staffing all of these programs was instructive, challenging and helpful in learning all aspects of the industry, he says. But perhaps the biggest benefit from his 10 years with WPVGA was the relationships he established.
"The fact is I have been fortunate to be able to spend so much time at meetings both in Wisconsin and nationally that I have gotten to know many different industry members, most of which have not been shy about sharing their opinions about various aspects of the potato industry," he says.
Last summer, Carter was hired by Bushmans' Inc. as its CEO, working closely with company President Mitchell Bushman in running the vertically integrated company.
Bushmans' was founded in 1974 by Jerry Bushman, who grew up growing, packing and marketing potatoes and other vegetables. His family has been a fixture in the industry since 1909. In 1974, he went on his own, leaving the family business and establishing Bushmans' Inc. as a potato marketing firm. Along the way, he got back into growing potatoes, then got back out. In 2000, he sold Bushmans' Inc to his two sons, Mitchell and Derrick, who continue as co-owners in the operation.
Bushmans' then returned to potato production and packaging through its purchase of the former Lazy A in Rice Lake, Wis., which is 150 miles northwest of the headquarters in Rosholt. Over the past seven months, Bushmans' also developed a new packing facility in Grand Falls, New Brunswick, Canada, in conjunction with local area growers. The new operation opened in March.
"This shed will help us better serve our customers on the East Coast with quality product with the ability to ship product quickly and with lower freight costs," Carter says.
Bushmans' success is the result of a well-oiled operation that depends on expertise inside the company and without, Carter says.
"We have our own fieldman on staff, Mick Koepeck, who does an excellent job for us," he says. "He is our eyes and ears and helps us ensure quality throughout the supply chain. His years of experience is a huge benefit to our organization."
The company also works closely with University of Wisconsin researchers and religiously sends its production staff to the UW extension potato meetings each February.
And Bushmans' maintains an excellent relationship with WPVGA and has had someone within the company on the WPVGA board of directors for many years.
"My former association with the WPVGA creates a natural link that I hope is mutually beneficial," Cater says. "Duane Maatz is a long-time friend of mine, and I could not be more pleased that he is now at the helm of the WPVGA."
As for its current marketing season, Carter said business has been very good, with steady foodservice and consumer purchases that started strong. Things slowed down a bit in February but have picked up significantly since.
Bushmans' now employs 38 people, and it is Carter's job to make sure the operation continues to run smoothly and to help form a vision for the company's future.
"That vision includes a business plan of continued growth both in areas of the industry that we are currently engaged in as well as areas that we plan to get involved with in the future."
Bushmans' is still developing those plans, and Carter is not at liberty to discuss specifics, but said the future also includes a much more conscious and professional supply chain.
"Customers are already demanding product that is traceable and is grown and packed under stringent food-safety standards," he says.
The suppliers that do well in the future are those companies that not only supply quality potatoes and other produce, but also supply assurance the product was produced and packed in a way to optimize food safety, he says.
"Throw in good service, a competitive price, unique packaging, convenient preparation ideas and proximity to the market, and you will likely be competitive in the marketplace of the future," he says.