John Keeling, National Potato Council
John Keeling, National Potato Council

Of all the agriculture-related undertakings John Keeling has been involved with during his extensive career, none have given him more satisfaction than those related to growing.

“I’ve always really liked working with the growers,” he said.

In his current position as executive vice president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based National Potato Council, Keeling has plenty of opportunities to serve potato producers.

Keeling, 60, is especially proud of three major accomplishments by the council and the potato industry over the past decade:

u Obtaining funds for potato breeding and general research by fostering relationships with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and legislators;

u Expanding markets and achieving access to the Mexican market for fresh potatoes ­— which Keeling calls “a big success story” ­— and,

u Working with the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, which Keeling co-chaired, to assume a leadership role in the effort to get specialty crop groups to come together for the first time and work on a common agenda for the 2007 farm bill.

Keeling’s family has been in the farming and ranching industries since the 1840s. However, he spent six years as owner and operator of a real estate renovation and sales firm in Richmond, Va., after graduating from Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va.

He returned to agriculture — on the public policy side — after earning a master’s degree in agricultural economics from Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

He spent eight years with the American Farm Bureau Federation, where he dealt with a variety of issues including the 1995 farm bill, and two years with the Animal Health Institute.

He had just accepted a job with the Washington, D.C.-based National Food Processors Association in 2001 when, on a whim, he sent a resume to the potato council and then interviewed with the organization.

“I liked them, and they liked me,” he said, adding that he couldn’t resist the lure of working directly for growers.

The National Potato Council was formed in 1947 to represent potato growers through its lobbying efforts and by working with regulatory agencies.

“It was a very fulfilling choice,” he said, though sometimes a frustrating one.

There is a sense of finality to the growing process, he said, when a grower plants a crop and harvests it.

However, on the public policy side, one can spend an entire career working on a single issue.

“Sometimes the pace of things can be a little frustrating,” he said.

National Potato Council president Justin Dagen, owner of Dagen Farms, Karlstad, Minn., said he has long been captivated by Keeling.

“John is incredibly honest, and he’s just a man of integrity,” he said. “He’s got incredible energy and vision.”

Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh Produce Association, said Keeling is very familiar with the inner workings of Capitol Hill.

“He has truly been one of the key forces behind the fresh produce industry in Washington, D.C.,” he said.