At the NPC Annual Meeting in January, America’s potato growers placed their trust in me to lead the National Potato Council as its president through 2014. It is a responsibility I take seriously as both a long-time advocate for the industry and as the nephew of a former NPC president, W.B. Whiteley, who led the organization in 1955 and 1956.
My uncle was a tremendous influence on me both personally and professionally. Shortly after I returned from college at age 19 and married my high school sweetheart in June of 1972, my father died suddenly of a heart attack in August and I was left to take over the family farm. Even though I had been involved in our operation ever since I could drive a toy tractor, my uncle was the one who taught me how to run a business and make the long-term plans that would allow me to pass the farm down to the next generation. His patience and looking after me and my family paid off.
Along with my wife Karlene, who serves as the farm’s secretary/treasurer, I am proud that my son Ben works beside me to take care of the day-to-day operations of our south-central Idaho farm. We even farm some of the ground owned by my late uncle.
While my uncle and I shared the desire to be a resource for the next generation, a lot has changed in the way the industry operates.
For example, when my uncle became NPC president in 1955, the 45,000 potato growers in the United States farmed 1.4 million acres, which yielded 228 million cwt. of potatoes. Today, there are fewer than 4,000 commercial potato growers farming 1.15 million acres. However, even with fewer growers and smaller acreage, the total yield has more than doubled, bringing in 467 million cwt. in 2012.
Even though today’s potato growers can celebrate the fruits of agricultural innovation that produces more with less, we must be aware that fewer growers means the voice of agriculture is diminishing.
During a December 2012 Farm Journal forum held after the general election, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had some sobering words for the agriculture community. He said, “Why is it that we don’t have a farm bill? It isn’t just the differences of policy. It’s the fact that rural America, with a shrinking population, is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that and we’d better begin to reverse it.”
After the initial shock of hearing that farmers are becoming less relevant to politics and policymakers, the truth of the numbers set in. In 1955, 10 percent of the labor force worked in agriculture; today, only 0.7 percent of Americans work on farms. In addition, rural voters accounted for just 14 percent of the turnout of the November 2012 elections, and that number continues to shrink.
As I look ahead to my year as NPC’s president, my No. 1 goal is to get back some of the political voice that slipped away as farm numbers diminished over the decades since my uncle held the NPC gavel. We must continue to work with other organizations in agriculture to form strong grower coalitions to accomplish policy goals such as passing a farm bill, fostering free trade agreements, and fighting for common sense environmental regulations.
Just as importantly, we must grow the collective voice of NPC by connecting with individual growers to help them see the benefits of getting involved with the political process.
While there may be fewer than 4,000 potato growers left in the United States, we represent billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs in economic production, and we support small-town communities across the nation.
Potato growers have a strong voice. Now we just need to use it.
Together, we can ensure that 2014 will be another big year for NPC and the industry. I look forward to working with the NPC executive committee, board of directors, and growers across the country on meeting the policy challenges ahead and getting more growers involved in the process. We have a positive story to tel,l and we need everyone’s help to tell it.