50 for 50: Joseph J. Pavek

Published online: Aug 09, 2021 50 for 50, Articles
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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 August 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

Joseph J. Pavek began his potato career in Aberdeen, Idaho, in the mid-1950s when there was only one russet potato: the Russet Burbank. Over time, the industry made it known that it needed more varieties to work with, and Pavek was tasked with creating new germplasm. At the pinnacle of his career, Pavek’s program was a world-renowned gene pool for superior potato germplasm.

Pavek began life with his five brothers on a third-generation dairy and crop farm outside Waubun, Minn. After high school, he left the farm for the U.S. Navy and served during the Korean War, specializing in radar on submarines and aircraft carriers in the Pacific and Mediterranean theaters. Following his service to his country, Pavek obtained bachelor’s and masters’ degrees in plant genetics from the University of Minnesota, with a three-year stint teaching high school vocational agriculture sandwiched between degrees. He graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1965 and was soon hired by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) as a potato breeder.

Pavek was a longtime friend of potato farmers and industry, serving as an ARS potato breeder for 34 years, from 1965 to 1999.

Following his retirement in 1999, Pavek bred and created new iris varieties as a hobby. He loved the challenge of creating and enhancing traits, whether for potatoes or flowers. He passed away in 2020 from age-related causes at the age of 92.

During Pavek’s career, Russet Burbank acreage fell dramatically as he and the Tri-State Potato Variety Development team released over 100 varieties, including five of the top 10 2021 U.S. potato varieties (Ranger Russet, Umatilla Russet, Alturas, Bannock Russet and Clearwater Russet). These varieties were grown on more than 300,000 acres in the U.S. in 2020, with more grown outside the country. Approximately half the french fries consumed in the U.S. come from varieties Pavek created. One of his goals was to push Russet Burbank into extinction due to its many faults. Despite his efforts, Russet Burbank was Pavek’s nemesis. The variety continues to thrive today, albeit on many fewer acres than at the outset of Pavek’s career more than 50 years ago. Long-term storability and McDonald’s acceptance continue to be a lifeline for the variety.

Pavek and his wife Sylvia made a home in American Falls, Idaho for 42 years. Together, they raised six girls and one boy. Pavek was proud of his Potato Hall of Fame status; he was inducted into both the Oregon (1997) and Idaho (2000) Potato Halls of Fame for his contributions to the regional potato industry. He enjoyed the challenge of a hunt. In his off time and during retirement, he tirelessly pursued cutthroat and rainbow trout, tempting fish from within deep, cold Idaho streams from flies he tied himself. He loved walking through sagebrush and aspen groves with his family in the Rockland hills, looking for wild mushrooms to fry up.  He went several on germplasm-hunting expeditions with colleagues and Sylvia in the southwestern U.S., always looking for wild potato species whose genetics would benefit the potato industry.