SUMMER 2017 / VOL. 17 ISSUE 1

Wisconsinís Mr. Potato Man Revels in Extensive Gaelic Links 
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To talk spuds, The Irish American Post caught up with Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association.

IAP - What is your Irish heritage? When did your ancestors come from Ireland?

TH - My heritage is Irish, English, Scottish and German.  My motherís parents came from a small village in Northern Ireland called Kilrae, County Londonderry.  My motherís maiden name was Audrey Bellingham.  Her parents were William and Annie (McMullen) Bellingham. They came to Ellis Island in New York in the early 1900s.

 IAP - Were they mostly farmers? What were their Wisconsin connections? 

TH - My grandfather on my motherís side was a cabinet-maker.  He lived in Rochester, N.Y., for most of his adult life.  They had no Wisconsin connection.  My father moved with my mother and nine older brothers and sisters from Long Island to Stevens Point, Wis., in 1959 just to get away from the big city.  Iím the only one in my immediate family who was born in Wisconsin.

 IAP - Whatís your farm background, if any? 

TH - I have no farm background, although I grew up out in the country in Central Wisconsin and was surrounded by farm families.  I majored in communications and German in college and took one semester abroad in Munich, then West Germany.  I was hired as the managing editor of The Badger CommoníTater magazine at the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association in 1987 based on my communication skills.  I had to learn about farming from the ground up!

IAP - Does it help to have a bit oí the Gael in you for this job? Do you always get jokes about your Irish heritage and potatoes? 

TH - Please, no Mr. Potato Head-isms, I'm sure. I began work as the managing editor in November,f 1987.  It did not have anything to do with my Irish heritage, although that does help in that I have a great affinity for all things potatoes.  I do hear a lot of jokes about being an Irishman working in the potato industry.  I named my second daughter "Tatum" as an homage to the mighty potato!

IAP - Has the WPVGA hosted Irish potato farmers on tour here in Wisconsin? Any farm-to-farm visits? 

TH - To my knowledge, the WPVGA has not hosted any Irish potato farmers in our state.  I have met folks affiliated with the Irish potato industry sinceIíve gone to the last five World Potato Congress events, including one in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2012 where I met several members of the firm "Irish Potato Marketing, Ltd." 

Also, as part of our marketing and promotions program, we have had the Wisconsin Spudmobile (our mobile educational and promotional vehicle) on exhibit at Milwaukee Irish Fest in August.  It was there last year (2016) and will be there again this year (2017).

IAP - What in the future for Wisconsin potato/veggie growers? Are you positive about how the state can compete in a world market.

TH - I believe the future is quite bright for Wisconsin potato and vegetable growers.  We rank number three in the nation in potato production and weíre second only to California in the production of vegetables for processing (green beans, sweet corn, peas, carrots, cucumbers, onions, etc.).  We have good soil, plentiful water and very progressive, intelligent, hardworking farmers.

IAP - What are your duties with the association? Why is if valuable to have a trade group like this? Are there many "Irish" heritage members or are most Wisconsin potato farmers Polish, German or other?

TH - I am the executive director of the WPVGA.  We have four main areas of work:  Governmental Affairs, Research, Marketing and Education.  The growers see value in the WPVGA working in all of those areas. The growers voted to tax themselves seven cents per hundredweight of potatoes sold in Wisconsin, which generates a budget of about $1.75 million.  (Note: They may increase this assessment to eight cents/cwt. effective July 1, 2017.)  We have approximately 110 grower members, 210 Associate Division members (allied industry), and 115 Auxiliary members (mostly wives of growers and associates).  We have a few Irish heritage members, but I would say the majority of the growers are of Polish descent.

IAP - Whatís your favorite potato dish? Your favorite variety? Did your mom make a lot of potato dishes when you were growing up? 

TH - I really have a hard time identifying my favorite potato dish because I like so many of them!  I love German potato salad; I love mashed potatoes and gravy; I love baby reds; and I love fried potatoes with a little garlic, salt and pepper.  I would have to say that round whites are my favorite variety, specifically Superiors, because they have a very earthy and distinct flavor.  My mother was an excellent cook, and made a lot of potato dishes for our large family (remember those ten kids??!!). She made a fantastic potato salad.

IAP - While having a Friday fish fry do you favor potato pancakes or the fries? Whatís your favorite Wisconsin fish fry place with the best potato dish?. 

TH - This is another tough one because I do love Friday fish fries.  I usually order potato salad with my fish fry, although I also like French fries.  Potato pancakes are not typically offered where I go.  I can give you my five best fish fries near Stevens Point, Wis.: Materos; The Final Score; Micheleís; The Point After; and Clancyís Stone Lion (although they donít fry their fishóthey only offered broiled and baked).  I would say the best potato dish is offered by The Final Score because they have "Bee Hives" which are small balls of deep fried mashed potatoes.

IAP - What do you like about potatoes?

TH - I often count my blessings when it comes to working for the potato industry.  Potatoes are easy to promote and just about everyone likes potatoes in one way, shape or form.  To me, the best thing about them is their versatility.  Just think about all the ways they can be prepared, and how universally loved they are.  They are very nutritious (more potassium than a banana), have good fiber, have no fat, no cholesterol and no gluten.  They are Americaís favorite vegetable.

IAP - How often have you visited Ireland?
TH - I traveled to Ireland with my wife in 2012 and visited my second cousin, who still lives there.  He showed us around Kilrae and took us to the gravesites of our ancestors.  He also took us to the ruins of my grandparentsí home and made several visits to neighbors in that area who welcomed us in with open arms (and fine tea). I was very impressed with the warmth shown to us by the Irish people. It was the only time I visited Ireland and Iíd love to go back. 

We flew into Dublin, rented a car, and traveled across the country to the west where we visited the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren; traveled north to Carrowmore, Dunluce Castle and Giantís Causeway.  We then spent some time in and around Kilrae before heading back to Dublin.  We spent about 10 days there and it was not nearly enough.  We did not visit farms or a Famine Museum.  I read a book about the Irish Potato Famine and I do own the book, The Great Shame, by Thomas Keneally, which is a great read for anyone interested in the history of the Irish people, particularly in the 19th century.

IAP - What was the most fun you had in Ireland? 

TH - I was blown away by the stunning beauty of Giantís Causeway.  Itís a must see.  I mentioned my second cousin, Boyd Gray, who still lives not far from Sligo.  My wife and I had great fun one night at a pub in Dublin listening to a traditional Irish band.  We had fish ní chips and a couple of pints of Guinness.

IAP - Are you planning any more trips to Ireland? 

TH - None planned, but itís definitely in the plans to visit again in the future.

 IAP - Anything other thoughts about the Irish, Ireland, potatoes? 

TH - My fatherís biological last name was "Strauss," thus my German heritage.  My dadís step-fatherís name was "Houlihan." His biological father died when he was a child and is really the reason so many people believe Iím Irish even though the heritage is from my motherís side.  My father and mother met in New York in the 1940s, and were married and lived in Long Island for many years. 

Wisconsin Has the Spuds

The WPVGA has estimated the harvested acres of Wisconsin potatoes at 61,000 in 2016.  The average yield in Wisconsin is estimated to be 430 cwt./acre.  That puts Wisconsinís potato production at 26,230,000, a decrease of 2,290,000 cwt., or 8% compared to 2015. 

Total planted acres are similar to the 2015 crop, which were reported to be 63,000, but due to heavy rains in August and September, approximately 3% of the potato acreage could not be harvested.  Fresh and processing potato acreages are stable, while certified seed potato acreage declined by 58 acres to a total of 8,874 (a change of less than 1 %).

 The usage breakdown for this crop is as follows:
Seed Potatoes
Chip Potatoes
Fresh Potatoes

 The farmgate value stayed about the same.

 The WPVGA puts the crop at approximately 62,000 acres, at 460 cwt./acre for a crop weight total of approximately 28,520,000 cwt. The usage breakdown for this crop is as follows:
Seed Potatoes
Chip Potatoes
Fresh Potatoes

 With the farmgate value of the Wisconsin potato crop estimated at $300 million, the snack food industry (chips) portion of that is about $75 million.

My father grew up in New York City, and often spoke of all the ethnicities and prejudices that existed there, especially in the 1920s and 1930s.  He remembers being called "an Irish mick," and grew to despise prejudice in all its forms.  He passed that on to all of his children and I try to do the same.


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