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Agriculture

Warden grower becomes as popular as his spuds

The Othello Outlook of Othello, Washington

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Frank Martinez is becoming a well-known face around the U.S., in agricultural circles and beyond. Behind the weathered smile seen as he cuts into a raw potato or lifts his grandson in his arms lies a history of tough life and aspirations, of sleeping in fields and serenading a governor.

Besides oh the cover of January's Potato Country magazine, the Washington potato farmer has found himself in a series of national television and print commercials as a featured supplier of products used in McDonald's restaurants. The TV ads aired during prime time football games show Frank sitting in front of a mound of potatoes piled high in a storage shed -- no green-screen fakery needed for those spuds. And no shortcuts either for the man who grew them.

When Frank Martinez began his year as chair of the Washington State Potato Commission in July 2010, he had come a long way on his agricultural road. Born in Rio Bravo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, Frank first worked in ag alongside his father, picking crops from tomatoes and berries to cherries and cotton across the U.S. Seeing the country from the back of a truck "was an adventure" at the time, he says now. Things taken for granted and even mandated today, like eating, sleeping and going to school, were caught on the fly when and where work allowed them.

A first generation grower, Frank started growing potatoes on his own with about 35 acres in 1981 after working his way up to irrigation supervisor for Skone and Connors. Frank's Saddle View Farms now grows about 1,000 acres a year in fresh and processed potatoes and corn.

"The story of Frank Martinez is the story of the American dream," Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, said. "He started life as a migrant worker and through his hard work and integrity, he was able to create opportunities for himself and his family."

For years, Frank helped coordinate the Spanish language session of the Washington State Potato Conference. He has often slung fries at the Commission booth at the National Restaurant Association annual trade show, met with Washington state legislators and the Congressional delegation in D.C. and served baked potatoes in the rotunda at the state capital on the WSPC's annual Potato Day.

Frank has traveled and served Washington potato interests through two governors and two state Directors of Agriculture. As both a fresh and processed grower, he can speak to many issues on behalf of the industry. Even before his days on the Commission, Frank was representing US. growers at meetings of the North American Plant Protection Organization (NAPPO), a league of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Frank continues to be a fixture at these critical trade and technical meetings.

Mexico had long been closed to U.S. potatoes when Frank Martinez visited with members of CONPAPA in April 2001. Frank began a dialogue over dinner with the Mexican potato growers' group that developed into exchange visits by growers from both countries, personal friendships and fruitful negotiations. The market opened in April 2003.

In 2007, Frank was part of a delegation that met with Mexican fresh potato buyers and distributors and with federal and state government officials in Mexico City on extending market access for Washington fresh potatoes. The potato representatives also hosted fry promotions at Wings family restaurant in Mexico City and El Polio Pepe in Guadalajara.

A highlight of the journey occurred when Commissioner Martinez broke into song during a performance by a maria-chi band one afternoon and serenaded Washington governor Chris Gregoire.

Recently, Frank and his wife Diana were invited to tell their story for the National Public Radio program StoryCorps.

"What I admire most about Frank is the strength of his character and his commitment to family," Voigt said. "Frank sets an example for all of us on how we should be living our lives."

See Martinez in action at www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXgKCFqACkw and www.mcdonalds.com/us/en/suppliers.html and click POTATOES.

Original Publication Date: January 19, 2012



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