The Crunch: Potato growers in the state of Washington have an institutional ally to help them — and their crops — prosper. The Washington Potato Commission supports growers through marketing and research that helps them produce more nutrition per acre than any other crop in the state. About 60% of Washington’s potatoes are sent abroad, and the Washington Potato Commission works with trade negotiators to get the surplus crops into new and existing markets. The Commission also works on marketing potatoes through an award-winning television show and devotes more than $1 million to research new growing methods that use fewer resources.
Many people eat potatoes on a daily basis — quite often in the form of chips or fries — but few would envision sticking to a potato-only diet for two months — much less have such a diet improve their overall health.
But that’s just what Chris Voigt, Executive Director of the Washington Potato Commission, did to prove that potatoes are, in fact, highly nutritious. Chris came up with the idea to help Washington’s potato growers as the USDA was considering restricting potato consumption in school meal programs.
He ate an average of 20 potatoes a day, with no butter or sour cream, and after 60 days had shed 21 pounds — and some light on the potato industry.
Deciding to commit to this challenge wasn’t too hard for Chris; he grew up eating potatoes twice a day and has been working in the potato industry for the past 22 years. He got his start when he responded to a job ad for the National Potato Promotion Board.
“I love potatoes, and thought I’d be a good fit for what they were looking for,” Chris said.
Two decades later, he’s still a fan of spuds and thoroughly enjoys his job. “Working for the Potato Commission is like working for my friends,” Chris said. “It’s easy to get up and go to work every day and help them be successful on their farms and in their businesses.”
The job takes Chris around the globe; one week he might be in Vietnam teaching local chefs how to incorporate potatoes into traditional Vietnamese fare, while the next week he’s at the USDA offices in Washington, DC, helping shape policies on getting potatoes on the plates of vulnerable populations.
Another day, he might start working in a potato field at dawn and transition to a boardroom by the afternoon. “I love my job because I get to dabble in such a wide variety of activities and issues,” he said.
Impacting Policy as the Voice of Washington’s Potato Growers
As part of his work with the Potato Commission, Chris is a perpetual globetrotter. He not only advocates for Washington potatoes to be used in restaurants but also with the government to ensure that potatoes keep their well-deserved place in the American diet.
It was during a period of frustration about the misinformation circulating about the potato’s nutritional value that he came up with his idea for his 60-day potato-only diet. “The final straw was when the USDA was looking at eliminating or restricting potato consumption in the school breakfast and lunch programs,” said Chris. “I decided the best way to prove them wrong was to eat only potatoes for 60 days to show them that there was enough nutrition in them that you could live off of them.”
While Chris wouldn’t recommend relying on a single food to supply every nutritional need, his experiment with potatoes was a success. Several of his health markers improved dramatically, with his cholesterol dropping by 67 points and his fatty triglycerides reduced by half.
The Potato Commission’s work isn’t limited to the confines of the US. International trade is critical to Washington’s potato growers as about 60% of their products end up on tables in other countries. “The Potato Commission works with trade negotiators from the USDA and the US Trade Representative’s office to open and maintain new markets for our potatoes,” said Chris.
And the Commission gives growers and processors marketing grants to fund promotional efforts.
Foreign buyers are often introduced to Washington potatoes when Chris participates in trade missions. Other times, these buyers are brought to Washington so they can see the farms and environment for themselves. They also get a first-hand look at the way in which growers nurture and care for the crops.
How “Washington Grown” TV Show Promotes Local Agriculture
Many misconceptions about the nutritional value of potatoes exist, and at a long-range planning meeting of the Washington Potato Commission, it was decided that the organization needed to be more proactive in educating the public with the facts.
“If we don’t tell the story ourselves, others will. And there’s a good chance they’ll get it wrong,” said Chris.
The decision led the Commission to partner with the television show Washington Grown, which Chris called “a farming show cleverly disguised as a food show.” Episodes feature different agricultural products grown in Washington.
Each show highlights a particular restaurant and chef, as well as a featured ingredient. The chef prepares a meal, then meets the farmers, and learns what went into the process of growing the featured ingredient.
Viewers also learn the heritage of the crop, its nutritional facts, and various ways they can prepare it at home. It’s a way for people to connect with what’s on their tables and get the real information behind the products.
Now in its fifth season, the show’s popularity grows each year, and it’s even won a local Emmy. There are currently seven episodes devoted to different types of potatoes, and spuds are featured in a handful of others devoted to meals — such as breakfast. It airs statewide on public television and on the Washington Grown website.
Investing In Research to Create More Potatoes with Fewer Resources
Chris’ all-potato diet drew plenty of attention to his cause, and the US Senate eventually intervened to protect potatoes from being taken off school lunch menus. His dedication mirrors that of the Washington Potato Commission to farmers in the state — who grow some of the finest spuds in the world.
Thanks to the long hot summer days, the cool nights, and fluffy volcanic soil, Washington potatoes are not only tasty, but environmentally friendly. When these positive factors are combined with the innovative practices of the growers, the result is “the most sustainable growing region on the planet,” said Chris.
“We can produce more potatoes, and nutrition, on an acre of ground here in Washington State than anywhere else in the world,” he said
To sustain this success — and create more — the Potato Commission invests in research to the tune of $1 million a year. “We work on figuring out how to grow the best potatoes possible using the least amount of resources,” Chris said.
As potato farmers in the state continue to reap great yields through modern farming technology, the Washington Potato Commission will help them meet the nutritional needs of potato lovers around the world.