New potato commission CEO ‘a potato guy through and through’
By Sean Ellis
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation
EAGLE – In as much as it’s possible, Jamey Higham, the new president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission, has potatoes in his blood.
Higham, who in February took over leadership of the commission that promotes the state’s most famous product, was born and raised in Shelley, the epicenter of potato production in Idaho.
He attended Shelley High School, who’s mascot is the russet potato. Like many high school students in Bingham County, he also spent a couple weeks each fall helping with spud harvest.
Most of Higham’s professional career has been spent in the potato industry.
“Jamey is a potato guy through and through and he really understands the industry,” said Brett Jensen, chairman of the IPC.
Higham spent many years in the trenches of the potato industry before being hired to lead the IPC, which promotes and advocates for the iconic Idaho potato.
Julie VanOrden, a Bingham County resident and one of the IPC’s nine commissioners, said everything about Higham’s background, from his potato roots to his vast experience within the industry, made him a great hire.
“His background, skills and experience were such a great fit for that position,” she said. “That just all fit together for me.”
There were a lot of really good, qualified candidates for the position but Higham’s experience in the industry stood out, said IPC commissioner Eric Jemmett, from Parma.
“Jamey has the experience and background that we think will help” the Idaho potato industry going forward, he said.
Idaho potatoes are a world-famous brand that is so strong it’s on most license plates in the state. Higham understands the importance of maintaining that brand recognition, VanOrden said.
“He knows the importance of the brand recognition that we have with Idaho potatoes,” she said.
“I would put the Idaho potato brand up there with the big brands,” Higham said. “When you say Idaho, people just instantly think of potatoes.”
Higham got his start in the potato industry in 1991, working in quality control for Idaho-based Walker Produce and then spent several years in sales at Potandon Produce in Idaho Falls.
After earning a master’s degree in international business marketing at Arizona State University, he spent five years at Ford Motor Co. in marketing and sales before returning to Potandon in 2003, where he worked for 13 years, ultimately serving as vice president of sales.
He was named president and CEO of Farm Fresh Direct in 2016, where he helped drive growth of the company’s conventional and organic potato lines.
He has also served as a member of the United Fresh government relations council, where he helped advocate for potatoes in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve been down in the trenches of the potato industry for a long time,” he said. “This is just a different side of the business.”
Besides being what Idaho is most famous for, potatoes are big business in the state and a big part of the economy. The spud industry directly and indirectly is estimated to have about a $5 billion impact on Idaho’s economy each year, Higham said.
“Potatoes are what Idaho is known for and I think the state overall embraces that,” he said. “That’s fun and there is some pressure representing something the whole state is known for.”
The Idaho Potato Commission is charged with defending and promoting the Idaho potato brand. The commission’s annual budget is just over $15 million and is funded through an assessment of 12.5 cents per hundred pounds of potatoes sold that is paid by growers, shippers and processors.
Higham said he has been well received within the industry and still has a lot to learn about his new position.
“The commission has done a great job over the years promoting Idaho potatoes and I hope I can keep that momentum going,” he said.
Higham said his main goal as head of the IPC is keeping what works going and “fixing” those things that don’t work so well.
“I want to keep doing the things that the commission is doing that work really well and for those things that aren’t working really well, we’ll pivot away from them and find new, different and exciting ways to promote the grown in Idaho potato products,” he said.
Higham said it’s too early to say whether the commission’s big promotional efforts, which include the annual big Idaho potato truck tour and sponsorship of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, will continue as they currently are.
He did say he thinks the big Idaho potato truck tour “is a very successful marketing and public relations campaign and I like it.”
But, he added, “Along with everything else – the bowl game and the truck and the different sponsorships we do – I have to be very deliberate in my evaluation of what I think is the best spend of our growers’ and shippers’ money.”
“We are going to look at each of these things item by item and see what we think we get a good return on investment on,” Higham said. “And if it’s working, great. If not, we’ll probably have to fix it.”
“Everything gets reviewed,” Jemmett said.
Ultimately, Higham said, any promotional efforts the commission does undertake or continue will be designed with one main goal in mind: “What we want is that when people think about buying potatoes or fries, the first thing they think is ‘Idaho.’ That’s what we’re trying to do here.”
The commission is currently undertaking a long-range planning effort and Higham said while it’s important to have a long-range plan, it’s also important to be ready to change directions quickly if needed.
“The rate of change in our industry and the world in general is just speeding up every month, so stuff that sounds like a great idea one month might be a bad idea six months later,” he said. “So we have to do a long-range planning that’s very flexible and nimble so that we can turn on a dime if we need to because it’s a different world out there than it used to be.”
The decisions on the direction the commission goes in the future will be made in concert with the nine-member IPC, which includes representatives from the grower, shipper and processing communities.
IPC Commissioner Mark Darrington, from Declo, said he likes Higham’s take on planning for the future but being ready to shift directions rapidly if the situation dictates.
“The world is changing and Jamie is ready to face that,” said Darrington, who is chairman of the IPC’s long-range planning effort. “You have to have some flexibility in what you are doing because the world does change rapidly.”
He also said the commission welcomes and seeks input from growers and others within the industry as the IPC undertakes its long-range planning effort.
“We want to make sure we hear every voice and hear their input,” Darrington said. “Your commissioners are all ready to hear you and we want to canvas all of our growers. Every grower has a voice and if they have some constructive suggestions, we want their perspective.”
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