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When the membership of the Idaho Grower Shipper Association gathers for its 81st annual convention Sept. 2-4 in Sun Valley, ID, it will mark the first year under the leadership of Travis Blacker, who took the helm following the retirement of the organization's former longtime president, Dave Smith.

Mr. Blacker told The Produce News that overall it has been a successful and exciting first year.

Aside from the many hours spent planning the annual Sun Valley convention, Mr. Blacker said that he has been busy working on various issues that affect the membership of the association.

"I am involved with the supply chain council for United Fresh Produce Association, so that has kept me busy with various meetings," he said. "And the traceability issue has kept us busy, educating all the growers and getting them up to speed on that."

Another issue that has commanded the time of the new IGSA president is the Coalition for Transportation Productivity.

"This is a bill that was introduced in late March by Rep. Michael Michaud (D- ME), which tries to increase the gross vehicle weight on trucks to 97,000 pounds from 80,000 pounds for trucks with an additional axel," said Mr. Blacker. "This will decrease the number of trucks on the road and will make the trucks that are on the road safer, because they will be able to stop more safely due to the additional axel. This is a big deal for potatoes as well as the entire produce industry."

Mr. Blacker said that there was little support for the bill at first, but the IGSA and the Idaho Potato Commission have worked hard to attract backers of the bill.

"There are now about 40 congressmen behind it, and it's an important issue, because the number of trucks on the road is expected to double -- or even triple -- by 2025," Mr. Blacker said. "Additionally, Canada and Mexico have much higher gross vehicle weight limits, so we need to catch up. And it will mean less wear and tear on the roads."

Mr. Blacker said that this particular issue was a great learning experience for him. "This was my first time getting up and speaking in front of congressmen and senators, so that was exciting," he said. "You only have a few minutes in front of these guys, so you want to make your point quickly and as clearly as possible."

He added that the association has seen some good growth during the past year. "We added one new full member - Southwind Farms - and 14 associate- level members," he said. Acknowledging that following 28-year veteran Dave Smith as president was not an easy task, Mr. Blacker credited the people in the Idaho potato industry with helping to make the transition successful.

"There have been some great people that have welcomed me into the industry," he said.

And the three months he worked side by side with Mr. Smith prior to last year's convention were especially valuable.

"The biggest thing I learned from Dave is that he told me I needed to be a listening ear for the industry and not make snap decisions," he said. Mr. Blacker also said that he believes he is well suited to the position due to his customer service background while working at Dickinson Frozen Foods. "I look at my members as my customers," he said.

"The highlight of the IGSA each year is the convention," Mr. Blacker said. "We've been busy putting that together, and we have a really strong program planned."

Among the events planned are the "Education Day" on Sept. 2, which will feature various meetings, seminars and workshops geared toward potato growers and shippers. The day was scheduled to kick off with seminars on motor carrier transportation and rail transportation, followed by seminars on crop insurance and potato storage technology. Also scheduled were workshops on changes in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Market News portal and one on Good Agricultural Practices.

Wednesday morning sessions were to be followed by a luncheon sponsored by the United Potato Growers of Idaho and United Potato Growers of America, during which time information will be presented about a new potato acreage tracking system.

Other scheduled afternoon sessions were one on the Produce Traceability Initiative, featuring Dan Vach?, vice president of supply chain management for the United Fresh Produce Association. Another session to be presented by John Orr of AMVAC, was designed to explore new fumigation rules and how they would affect growers. Attendees of this session were eligible to receive one credit toward their recertification.

On Thursday, the Idaho Potato Commission was scheduled to present its new promotion and advertising programs at the breakfast session it is sponsoring.

The Friday program had United Fresh President Tom Stenzel and United Fresh Chairman Jim Lemke on the docket, to be followed by the group's annual golf tournament.

While the program is full of worthwhile and informative material, Mr. Blacker said that what really sets the Sun Valley convention apart from others in the industry are the social events and the setting. "I think that's what makes Sun Valley so special -- the ability to relax a bit in such a beautiful setting and still do business."

Mr. Blacker said that he is expecting a "very strong turnout" for this year's convention. "We had a great turnout last year, in part because it was Dave Smith's final convention. But we're expecting just as many people this year."