Washington State Potato Commissioner “Loves the Industry”

Published online: Mar 04, 2014
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"I love the industry and I want to do everything I can to help it," Washington State Potato commissioner Frank Martinez says about why he serves on the Potato Commission board. Martinez, who will be 63 years old next month, has been a commissioner for 12 years, including time spent as chairman of the board and chairman of the Trade and Market Access Committee.

When Martinez first became a commissioner, the commission was "hot on the trail" of trying to break into the Mexican market with fresh potatoes, he explains. Martinez, who holds dual American and Mexican citizenships, knows some of the potato farmers in Mexico. "I think that gave us a small edge" he says, and perhaps helped the commission get the concession from the Mexican government to be able to import fresh potatoes up to 26 kilometers past the border.

Martinez has worked in agriculture his entire life. When he was six years old, Martinez would pick cotton with his family in Oklahoma. It wasn't easy for a young boy, but he made little piles of cotton and then his mother or father would come along with a big sack and pick up what he had picked. He did this to help out any way he could, even at that young age. His family traveled around the country following the harvest in a truck with two other families. They would start in Florida near Homestead, picking tomatoes, and then would continue picking tomatoes in central Florida, Virginia, Indiana, and finally Ohio. After that the families would pick cotton in Oklahoma. When the cotton was harvested, the families would return to the Nuevo León region of Mexico until the next year when they started it all over again. It was a difficult life but it taught Martinez the value of hard work.

 Martinez has been in the potato industry all of his adult life. He worked for Skone and Connors Produce for 25 years, working his way up to irrigation supervisor as he learned about the intricacies of growing potatoes. In 1981, he decided he could farm on his own so "on a wing and prayer" he got a bank loan and rented 35 acres and planted it in potatoes that he contracted to what was then Carnation. He worked his own land when he wasn't at his job for Skone and Connors: nights, weekends, early mornings. From there Martinez's farming grew and today he farms about 1,000 acres—about 100 of that in corn and the rest in potatoes. His son, Juan, works with him, mostly growing the corn.

"I love everything about farming but taking the winters off is wonderful," Martinez says with a chuckle. Checking his storages takes about an hour and then he gets the rest of the day off. He enjoys watching westerns on T.V. and nearly every weekend his 5-year-old grandson, Fabian, comes to visit. "I also enjoyed the playoffs and the Super Bowl," he adds with a smile.

The time off allows him to travel and he just got back in January from spending three weeks at his house in Mexico. Martinez is a permanent deacon at St. Michael's Catholic Church in Royal City and is the Spiritual Director of the church's Cursillo Movement. Martinez says it's a "short course" in Christianity. "It takes time," he says. "I work in the church a lot because I feel the need to give back what God has given me."

Martinez says the biggest challenge he faces as a farmer is the weather. "This last couple of years had some heat streaks that affected yields." The second biggest challenge is the multiple diseases that can affect potatoes. And the third biggest challenge is markets. "If you don't have a good market it doesn't matter how good a crop you grow," he explains.

Martinez says the potato commission does a good job with its education programs, especially for people living in big cities. "We tell the good story about being the farmer," he explains. People living in cities don't have a good image of farmers, according to Martinez, and have a lot of misconceptions about farmers and farming damaging the land and harming the environment. "That's the last thing we want to do," Martinez says, because the land is their living.

"We're doing everything we can possibly do," at the potato commission according to Martinez. The commission will go to trade shows overseas to promote Washington potatoes. "Tell the world how great our product is," Martinez explains. Martinez says his wife, Diana, thinks he spends too much time with the commission and other commitments but, "she loves the opportunity to go and promote our products."

Although they both lived in central Washington—Frank in Warden where his family settled in 1966 and Diana in Othello where her family settled in 1957—they actually met at a dance in Mexico. The couple has been married for 42 years.

Martinez has had a lot of exposure on television the past few years. In 2012 he was featured in a McDonald's ad. He's been on the "Grow Washington" program that is part of the education outreach of the potato commission in conjunction with other agriculture commissions. And the Spanish-language network Univision did a segment on Martinez as a Hispanic farmer and potato commissioner.

The biggest change Martinez says he's seen in the industry is technology such as GPS. He pulls out his cell phone and shows that he can monitor the conditions in his potato storage, such as the set point, temperature and humidity, from anywhere in the world. When he was in Mexico he'd look at his phone in the morning and if he saw a problem he would call Juan to go and check the storages. "I think technology has made our lives so much easier."

Martinez and his wife are expecting their third grandchild soon and will be traveling to San Diego for the birth. The baby is due March 19, which is also Martinez's birthday.

"Be nice if he's born on my birthday," Martinez says with a happy smile.


Source: Basin Business Journal