Familiar Feeling

Published online: Sep 03, 2018 Articles Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in the September 2018 issue of Potato Grower.

Family.

It’s a word that’s thrown around with impunity in reference to any group or gathering of people with even the remotest sense of familiarity with one another. It’s a tired trope used endlessly by athletes, CEOs, local politicians and even entire industries. Unless it’s in reference to an actual family, the simplest reaction is just to roll one’s eyes and move on.

Yet, at the 102nd annual meeting of the Potato Association of America (PAA) in Boise, Idaho, July 22-26, that word—family—rang a little less hollow, a little more sincere, than it typically does. I was fortunate enough to be in attendance, and though I heard the PAA compared to a family several times, it felt like the respective speaker was always aware of the hokeyness of term but nonetheless found it an apt description.

The PAA is a collaboration of many of the best scientific minds in the potato industry, with a membership of over 550 scattered over six continents. Its official mission is to “collect and disseminate scientific information relating to all phases of the potato industry, including—but not limited to—teaching, research, outreach, breeding, certification, production, pests, transportation, processing, and marketing and utilization.” The American Journal of Potato Research, distributed bimonthly by the PAA, publishes reports of basic and applied research of one of the world’s most important food crops. And each year, members get together to network and share their latest discoveries and ideas.

“This meeting is like a scientific family reunion,” said longtime Frito-Lay potato breeder Bob Hoopes, who was honored at the Boise meeting as one of four honorary life members.  

As I looked around, I realized that, yeah, it really was a little like a family reunion. Pathologists, long the research darlings of the industry, tried to mask their jealousy of all the recent fawning over the geneticists and breeders. The entomologists and nematologists managed to unobtrusively remind everyone that their branch of the family tree was still relevant, still vital, to the health of the whole. And, perhaps most importantly, unlike at a lot of big family reunions, most attendees actually knew and were happy to see each other.

What is it that has made the PAA so successful for over a century? What gives it that familial feel? The complete willingness to share trade secrets—and thereby rendering the term “secrets” moot—appears to be a key driver of the organization’s success. Researchers from Washington to New Brunswick, with backgrounds ranging from extension to federal government to private corporations, openly compare notes and even collaborate with each other, understanding that advances made by any one of them count as victories for the entire industry.

“Everyone here has succeeded because of help from someone else,” said Phil Nolte, a PAA honorary life member and retired pathologist and seed specialist with the University of Idaho, who got his own start in Minnesota and North Dakota. “This organization allows everyone to learn from and teach each other, and it works wonderfully.”

“It’s clichéd, but PAA is like a family,” said Brady Code, eastern technical lead for Syngenta Canada. “When an industry guy like me can get in a room with three Ph.D.s, and they listen to me and care what I have to say—that’s an unusual thing.”