Lathim Works to Find Balance

Published online: Apr 04, 2015 Sheldon Townsend
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“There has to be a balance,” Dale Lathim, executive director of the Potato Growers of Washington, says. His job, he explains, is to negotiate contracts between potato growers and processors that meet the needs of both sides: “The best possible contract for growers and processors.”

Lathim’s roots in agriculture go back to when he grew up on a farm north of Pasco, Wash. His family grew dryland wheat and raised cattle. “It was all I ever knew and wanted,” he says. He enjoyed the freedom of farming and working outside with his “hands in the dirt.” And he loved the cattle. “Cattle are interesting creatures,” he says. “The whole life process and each has a personality.” From raising to selling, Lathim says working with cattle was very enjoyable.

After attending Washington State University and majoring in agriculture with minors in agriculture mechanics and agriculture economics, Lathim returned to the family farm. He worked there for three years before the family put the entire farm under the conservation reserve program. He has worked at Potato Growers of Washington for 21 years and is now 53 years old. He and his wife, Gayle, have five grown children between them.

His job at Potato Growers of Washington puts Lathim as the principle negotiator between growers and processors. While he meets with committees of growers, Lathim negotiates for the approximately 80 percent of potatoes that go into frozen processing. However, he doesn’t negotiate for dehydrated processing.

During his tenure at Potato Growers of Washington, Lathim has seen the industry evolve" In 1993, he says, there were about 400 growers and six processors. Now growers have consolidated to about six entities and there are only three processor companies: McCain, Simplot, and Lamb-Weston. “Growers have gotten larger but profit per acre has gotten smaller,” he adds.

And the same is true for the processor side, he says, as their margins have gotten smaller. “When I started I never would have dreamed it would have gotten this far this fast,” Lathim says. While consolidation was necessary, he is surprised by how quickly it happened.

The best part of Lathim’s job, he says, is “working with growers. I'm not sure you can find a better segment from any industry to work with than potato growers.” Farmers, by nature, have to be optimistic, he says, but to be a potato farmer requires being a maverick. “The optimism and do-whatever-it-takes attitude makes them very enjoyable to be around.”

The biggest challenge Lathim faces is that balancing act between growers and processors. “I can’t get in a position of only going for growers because that may not be best for the industry.” He says he needs to balance the short-term needs of growers with the long-term needs of the industry. “A prosperous processing industry is necessary for the growers to be profitable and prosperous.”

Lathim is also president of the Potato Marketing Association of North America. This is an association of all the bargaining organizations in North America. It requires him to travel to anywhere there are potato processors. He travels six to 10 days per month, and in his office is a map of North America with pins for every place he’s been on business. Pins range from Prince Edward Island to southern California. He says his wife would like him home more, but “she’s a career woman and works as long as or longer than I do.”

In addition, Lathim is executive director of United Fresh Potato Growers of Washington and Oregon. In that job he makes sure fresh potato growers have the information they need to make the best decisions possible about marketing their crop.

Lathim is active with the Washington-Oregon Potato Conference and has an oversize potato peeler to commemorate this times when he was chairman. He’s the only still-active board member from when the conference was held in Moses Lake and is currently chairman of the trade show. He’s also on the Executive Committee of the Washington State Potato Foundation.

Lathim says that while growers face many problems, the biggest one is probably the regulatory burden. He says it’s a “constant challenge” for growers. “I’m not sure the American people and politicians know where their food comes from,” he says. They will make a regulation that sounds good on paper but doesn’t work for growers. “I have a lot to say to them and do every chance I get,” Lathim says of people who don’t understand agriculture. “I try to fill in with as much fact and science as I can because there’s so much emotion around those issues.”

Also, outside the Columbia Basin Project, water is a “huge” issue for growers, Lathim explains.

In his spare time, Lathim enjoys golf. “I go out and have fun.” He says he usually shoots in the 80s. He also enjoys travel for pleasure, especially the Caribbean and Jamaica. He enjoys Las Vegas and having meetings there and the “great golf” available. He’s a Seattle Mariners fan, talking about how they missed the playoffs last year by one game. With the new players coming in, he thinks they are a “playoff team but maybe not a World Series team.”

Of the Potato Growers of Washington he says with obvious pride, “We’re a big part of why the Columbia Basin has been so prosperous and successful in the potato industry.”

 

Source: Columbia Basin Herald