Nick Somers, a Stevens Point, Wis., potato grower (left), shares a laugh with Ben Kudwa after Kudwa received the Potato Man for All Seasons Award.
Nick Somers, a Stevens Point, Wis., potato grower (left), shares a laugh with Ben Kudwa after Kudwa received the Potato Man for All Seasons Award.

LAS VEGAS — Ben Kudwa, who retired in 2012 after spending 25 years at the helm of the Michigan Potato Industry Commission, DeWitt, was honored for his decades of industry leadership at the National Potato Council’s awards banquet, Jan. 11, in Las Vegas.

Packer staff writer Vicky Boyd presented Kudwa with the Potato Man for All Seasons award, which recognizes a leader who has spent his or her lifetime bettering the industry. It is sponsored by The Packer and in conjunction with the NPC.

In their award nominations, several colleagues from potato-growing regions nationwide noted Kudwa’s quiet leadership style, his unmatched integrity and his ability to bring differing viewpoints together.

“He’s given a lot to the industry, and he’s committed to it,” one colleague said. “He’s one of those guys who kind of just soldiers on every single day.”

A counterpart in the Northeast wrote of the long-term professional relationship the two had built over the years.

“Ben is a unique individual who operates with a strong, thoughtful, effective approach,” she wrote. “He listens, learns, contributes and takes action. I have witnessed his flawless ability to bring dissenting opinions together for the common good.”

Kudwa was hired as executive director of the commission in 1986, the same year devastating floods hit Michigan’s potato growers. A year later, Ore Ida closed its processing plant in Greenville.

About the same time, a new chipping variety was released, and Kudwa worked with Michigan State University potato specialist Dick Chase and growers to set up buyers’ tours of research plots and farms, according to one nomination.

Later, Kudwa secured funding for research trials looking at long-term storability of different chipping varieties.

“Growers and buyers have forged a cooperative relationship that focuses on the end consumer,” one nominator wrote. “From being a minor player in the chip sector a quarter century ago, the Michigan potato industry now has nearly three-quarters of its acreage in high-revenue chipping varieties.”

The Michigan state potato industry today has an annual farmgate value of $176 million compared to just $65 million in 1986, and many nominations credited Kudwa for much of that growth.

Several colleagues wrote about his efforts to secure funding for potato research projects and positions at Michigan State University, his high regard among regulators and legislators, and his leadership roles with other commodity groups.

“He has found common issues of self-interest among diverse forms of agricultural production and pulled together cadres of like-minded leaders to help move all those sectors forward,” a colleague from a neighboring state wrote.

In addition to being executive director of the commission, Kudwa also served as executive director of the Michigan Potato Management Board and legislative director of the Potato Growers of Michigan.