50 for 50: Gary Leever

Published online: May 11, 2021 50 for 50 Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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Throughout 2021, as part of Potato Grower’s celebration of our 50th year in publication, we will be honoring in our pages and on our website 50 of the potato industry’s most innovative and influential individuals, companies and organizations over the past half-century. This “50 for 50” series includes researchers, salesmen, packers, processors and, of course, plenty of potato growers. A lot of them will be names you’ve heard before. To some, you’ll get a fresh introduction. Regardless, each has had an outsize impact on the U.S. potato industry, and each deserves our thanks and recognition.
This article appears in the May 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

Some people can look back on their lives and point to a moment that served as a flashbulb moment that pointed the way for the rest of their lives. Gary Leever has just such a memory.

It’s midsummer the year he turned 12 years old, and young Gary is standing in a 10-acre field of Red Pontiac potatoes on his family’s farm in western Nebraska. It’s his responsibility to set the gravity-flow siphon tubes that irrigate this field. On his way there, Gary stops for a moment, surrounded by lush green plants and pale purple flowers, and drinks it in.

“I remember standing in that field with the canopy in full bloom up to my chest,” he says more than 60 years later. “The aroma was intoxicating. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was probably when I got bitten by the potato bug.”

After earning a degree and receiving an honorable discharge from the military, Leever was hired as assistant manager of the Potato Certification Association of Nebraska in 1969. Eventually he became the program’s manager and played an integral role in a number of improvements made to the seed potato industry in Nebraska and across the country.

Leever was a founding member of the Certification Section of the Potato Association of America (PAA), a body that was directly responsible for the improved standardization of certification across state lines that the industry utilizes today. In the early 1970s, he was the primary author of the U.S. No. 1 seed grade that remains the gold standard for interstate seed potato movement. He was part of the group that recommended the National Potato Council (NPC) host an annual seed seminar; that led to the creation of seminars for the chip and processing sectors, all of which ultimately grew to the massive annual event now known as Potato Expo.

Though he officially retired in 2009, Leever continues to regularly consult with seed growers and the Nebraska certification program. Wednesdays and Fridays this summer — his 52nd in the industry — will still find him training inspectors and performing field inspections himself.

“To the seed industry, and to the potato industry as a whole, my advice would be to continue to embrace change,” says Leever. “There have been so many positive innovations, and we need to embrace those.”

Leever, who for years has dabbled in poetry, sums up his career (and indeed, much of his life) thus:

When planted an earthy smell to the nose,

In full bloom the fragrance of a rose,

In storage a musty smell from the pile flows;

My life has been this crop called potatoes.