50 for 50: Randy & Karlene Hardy

Published online: Jun 21, 2021 50 for 50, Grower of the Month
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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 will include 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. To view the full roster of “50 for 50” honorees, click here
This article appears in the June 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

“Our potato family.”

That’s how Karlene Hardy describes the people from across the country she and her husband Randy have gotten to know and work with over the couple’s 50 years in the potato industry.

Well, if it’s a family, Randy and Karlene Hardy could fairly be called its patriarch and matriarch. They’ve dedicated as much of their lives to the U.S. potato industry as just about anyone. While their roots are and always will be planted deep in the rich topsoil of their native Oakley, Idaho — where they will harvest their 50th crop this fall — their reach extends far beyond the little valley they call home.

But let’s start with their home. The high school sweethearts married in 1972 at the age of 19 and joined Randy’s parents on the farm. Two months later, his father unexpectedly passed away, throwing the newlyweds into the deep end almost from the get-go. But they wanted to swim, so swim they did. Over 50 growing seasons, the farm has grown from 300 acres to about 2,800 today. Six hundred of those acres are dedicated to potatoes, all of which are fresh-packed at Sun Valley Potato, a grower-owned cooperative the Hardys joined in 1997. Randy has been chairman of the board there since 2010. Sun Valley Potato currently has 19 grower-owners stretching nearly the entire breadth of southern Idaho.

“Being the chairman at Sun Valley is, in my mind, one of my greatest accomplishments in the industry,” he says. “It’s gone from barely hanging on to being one of the five or six biggest fresh-pack sheds in the state. We’re the only true co-op shed in Idaho, and that structure has helped us and all the other growers so much over the years.”

In 1994, Randy was elected as a member of the U.S. Potato Board (now Potatoes USA), and it didn’t take long for people to take notice of him. A few years after his introduction to the board — and much earlier than he had anticipated — he was named chairman. A stint on the National Potato Council (including a year as president) followed shortly thereafter. And then six years on the Idaho Potato Commission.

“It honestly wasn’t my intention,” he says. “But in a matter of a few short years, I was a leader for all of them. It’s really been incredible.”

Karlene spent all those years attending meeting with Randy, but, she says, “I was just a spouse, and I was having a good old time.” Once again, though, the passion for the industry shone through, and she was elected to the U.S. Potato Board as Randy was leaving. Before long, she found herself on the executive committee, making sure that Oakley, Idaho, was heard from on a national level.

“Being part of that national potato family has been the highlight of being a potato grower,” she says. “The biggest thing that holds that group together is a shared trust in God with your life’s work. Being a part of that group has been such a blessing.”