Buzz Shahan headshot
United Potato Growers of America
By Buzz Shahan, Chief Operating Officer
Chaos Brings Opportunity
Adapting to ever-changing market conditions
man in green overalls with plaid shirt standing in a field with back towards camera
The Chinese military leader Sun-Tzu in his war manual observed, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” What did Sun-Tzu observe in battle that resulted in his conclusion? Military battles are fought with strategy and particular tactics. Once the battle is underway and strategy happens to fall apart, the side quickest to adjust to the ensuing chaos gains advantage over the other side.

Today, potato producers are in a battle against chaotic economic circumstances. Whatever the source of this chaos, whether politicians, economists, or global influences, economic chaos rules the day. These are some of the most challenging economic times people in business today have ever faced. Navigating this unpredictability is a serious matter. How to succeed from now until calm returns is the challenge, and calm is not just around the corner.

Recent legislation makes clear that most politicians have learned nothing from previous mistakes.

Many of last year’s process contracts saw the largest one-year increase ever negotiated. However large it was, it was not large enough because this year’s contract negotiations aim at an equal or larger increase. (Specific numbers are absent here for obvious reasons, but if you are in the game, you know the point being made.)

While chaos exists on the production side as just illustrated, imagine the chaos on the buy side. Up and down the potato-supply chain, everyone must have product to operate their businesses. Processors must have product in inventory available for those they supply, retailers must have product on grocery-store shelves, food service must have potatoes and potato products to fill out menus and re-baggers must have product in totes waiting in the cold room to be bagged and sold.

Recent legislation makes clear that most politicians have learned nothing from previous mistakes.
At the bottom of this potato-supply chain stands the potato producer. Once a lowlier figure often viewed as not being very well-informed, this grower now has ample data and organizational resources to chart safe travel until this economic mess straightens itself out. For decades process-producer organizations have tried to hold enough growers together to negotiate reasonable returns across the board. While basking in the glow of their amazing negotiating skills, data be damned, cohesiveness be damned, certain producers go it alone unaware that even greater margins result when producers negotiate as a single entity.

During the past one and one-half decades, fresh-potato producers accumulated market data with the goal of helping producers balance the critical supply/demand/price equation, thereby stabilizing both consumer and producer prices. Producers in regions that have balanced this equation now operate their businesses with annually consistent margins with consumers benefiting as well.

Today’s market conditions make it more important than ever before that potato production generates fair returns. Profitability has always been important though some producers just did not know it was. Not a few of those types are either awash in unnecessary debt or no longer producing potatoes.

There is peace, safety, and economic stability in respecting market data. Successful business people seek market data and are anxious to be guided by it.