Ben Kudwa, the emeritus executive director of the Michigan Potato Industry Commission, was presented with the Potato Man for All Seasons Award in Las Vegas, Nev., Jan. 11 as part of the National Potato Council annual awards banquet.
Kudwa spent 26 years with the MPIC, a grower-funded group organized under state law to promote the Michigan potato industry and support research to improve its competitive position. His successor, Mike Wenkel, began his position Aug. 31 while Kudwa remains with the MPIC on a part-time basis advancing the transfer-of-knowledge process.
Kudwa's honor recognizes career achievements in improving the potato industry.
Under Kudwa's tenure the Michigan potato industry rebounded from early setbacks including a devastating 1986 flood in Montcalm County, the state's leading potato producer, and the 1987 shutdown of a major plant that manufactured frozen French fries. However, the industry found alternative markets and now is particularly strong in supplying specialty processors. The annual value of the Michigan potato crop has risen from $65 million in 1986 to the current $176 million.
Kudwa credits strong grassroots leadership for the resurgence. He explained that a great deal of grower attrition occurred in the early years, but a strong base of committed growers not only found new markets but attained a reputation for such quality and reliability that Michigan is now the "go to" state for many processors.
Kudwa says, "Our acreage is about the same as a quarter century ago, so that means today's farms are typically much larger. Despite the complexities of running these operations, so many growers have given countless hours of volunteer work through the MPIC structure to improve our industry.
"One advantage we have is that these are all family farms. As the younger generation comes in, some time is freed up for the older generation to devote to industry-wide issues. We've had outstanding leadership among those growers appointed to the Commission."
In the award, Kudwa was noted for his "quiet leadership style" and ability to bring diverse points of view to a consensus on common goals, traits confirmed by industry colleagues from around the country.
Kudwa pointed out that all potato states have organizations like the MPIC. "These other state managers work tirelessly for their growers and are deserving of recognition also," he says. "The potato industry is dynamic. It is blessed with outstanding people from the grower level throughout its many organizations.
"I appreciate the congratulatory comments from so many people around the country, but the recognition also includes the MPIC staff and the many growers and other associates who have contributed so much. Research has been critical to our potato industry's progress, and the contributions of the many researchers at Michigan State University and our cordial relationships with them are all part of this award."