Supply management no longer 'taboo'
CHICAGO - Three years ago, things looked grim
for U.S. potato growers as huge surpluses held
prices below the cost of production.
Many growers either bailed out or started
making exit plans.
Today, potatoes are profitable again and the
future looks brighter for those still in
Why the turnaround?
Many growers attending the third annual potato
industry outlook summit Dec. 7 in the Windy
City credited an unprecedented level of
cooperation among producers and the formation
of a national supply management co-op.
United Potato Growers of America was formed
two years ago in an effort to control the
nation's supply of potatoes and return the
industry to profitability.
"I think we're seeing some extremely positive
results from United Potato Growers," Wisconsin
farmer Jim Wysocki, president of the National
Potato Council, told fellow producers.
The idea of supply management hasn't always
been popular. In fact, there was a lot of
resistance and misconception at first, said
Mike Telford, a seed potato grower from Paul,
When Telford proposed an association of
marketing orders be formed for the purpose of
supply management, many of his fellow growers,
even in Idaho, didn't want to listen.
But during one meeting, Louis Wysocki, Jim's
father, insisted that Telford get a hearing.
"Nothing happens until there's a motion on the
table," Louis Wysocki said.
Ultimately, the marketing order idea didn't
fly, but it helped start a broad discussion
that led to a group of growers forming the
United Fresh Potato Growers of Idaho
cooperative soon afterward.
That in turn led to the formation of the
national cooperative and a group of affiliated
regional United co-ops in several locations,
including the Klamath and Columbia basins,
Kern County, Calif., Colorado, Wisconsin and
There's even an affiliated United potato co-op
Telford said he's gratified that growers
finally got together to manage supply. It's
not the specific structure of the organization
that was important; it was that growers
finally started cooperating and stopped
fighting each another.
"We were delighted that United was formed," he
Telford, a member of the co-op, said he
couldn't help feeling a sense of vindication
as he listened to fellow producers at the
summit acknowledge the success of supply
"It's no longer a taboo subject," said Keith
Esplin, executive director of Potato Growers
of Idaho, who along with Telford was an early
proponent of the concept.
United co-op members share market information
on a regular basis and set packing guidelines
based on the collective data. Some offer
incentives to members who agree to cut
Some have compared the potato co-op to a
cartel and there are still growers who insist
it runs counter to free enterprise, a view
rejected by United members.
"I don't think that is its intent, and I don't
think it has that effect," Louis Wysocki said.
The outlook summit, which started the ball
rolling toward formation of the national
potato co-op, has grown each year, attracting
more growers and a stronger program,
More than 200 people registered for the event
this year, the most ever.
Presenters included representatives from the
U.S. Potato Board, the Food Marketing
Institute, Wal-Mart, Jewel-Osco Supermarkets
and Branston Ltd., the leading supplier of
fresh potatoes to Tesco stores in the United
The strong lineup shows how far the industry
has progressed, Louis Wysocki said.
"Three years ago, you wouldn't have had
Wal-Mart talking to us," he said.
Despite all the progress there are still
plenty of challenges, United members said.
Idaho grower-shippers, for instance, are again
taking flak for shipping too many spuds too
early in the season.
Idaho fresh shipments were up nearly 7 percent
from a year ago through Nov. 30.
"There are still lots of problems," Telford
said. "We have a long way to go."
Dave Wilkins is based in Twin Falls, Idaho.
His e-mail address is email@example.com.