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World Potato Congress Industry Awards presented during the 11th WPC in Dublin

The World Potato Congress Industry Awards were presented during the 11th World Potato Congress in Dublin, Ireland. Awards were presented to Dr. John J. Burke, Paul C. Struik, Antoon Wallays and Richard W. “Dick” Okray for their long and distinctive work in the international potato industry.

Dr. John J. Burke

Dr. Burke is one of Ireland’s foremost experts in the area of potato agronomy. In the 1990s, John returned to study to undertake a Ph.D. entitled “The effect of seed source, physiological age and desiccation date on yield and chip color in a range of potato cultivars.”

Dr. Burke retired from Teagasc (Ireland’s Agriculture and Food Development Authority), in 2007 having worked also on cereal disease control. In retirement, he returned to his favorite crop to volunteer with Vita, an Irish NGO, working primarily in Ethiopia and Eritrea on potato development projects. He worked tirelessly to maximize the impact of potato, always with a focus on developing farmers’ capabilities and knowledge. He spearheaded local seed production on virgin community land in Chencha, Ethiopia to prevent the spread of bacterial wilt, and pioneered the production of seed potatoes in mountainous regions in Eritrea to prevent viral degeneration.

John has led many workshops and seminars for farmers, agronomists, regulators and extension staff in both countries. He is instantly recognized and held in high esteem by all, from farmers to ministers, due to his easy respectful nature, genuine interest in everyone he meets and his natural desire to impart and share knowledge.

During extensive visits providing seminars and workshops with farmers and extension personnel, John became acutely aware of the lack of quality teaching material. He wrote a book in 2017 entitled “Growing the Potato Crop” targeted as a frontline resource for extension personnel in developing countries. The book was published with sponsorship from the Irish potato industry and made available free of charge to all in developing countries.

“Growing the Potato Crop” has since been translated into several languages, and an abridged handbook has also been developed. The book is also available as a free online resource and as a pdf.

His visits to Ethiopia and Eritrea are highly anticipated and John is held in high esteem by all who have met him and learned from him. John also actively supports the research of several PhD and MSc students working on potato development topics.

Paul C. Struik

Paul C. Struik has been a Professor of Crop Physiology at Wageningen University since 1986. He was the youngest ever appointed Professor in Wageningen at that time and potato has been the main focus crop over his career. He has conducted research on physiology, seed production, QTL-based modelling of crop growth and quality, seed system and chain management of agricultural produce in Africa, and sustainable intensification.

Many of his research projects are interdisciplinary in nature and in close collaboration with social scientists, bridging the gap between potato agronomy and development outcomes. Paul has been editor in chief of Potato Research, the journal of the European Association for Potato Research, since 1990 and a member of the EAPR board in various roles over the same period. He is co-author of more than 500 scientific papers in international journals, including the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and a NATURE PLANTS paper, and 6 papers in Trends in Plant Science.

Other outputs include more than 300 scientific papers or papers for the general public; and 15 books (including seed potato technology). He has completed the supervision of more than 110 PhD candidates and is currently supervising 30 PhD students, many of them working abroad.

In 2019, Professor Struik received the International Crop Science Award from the Crop Science Society of America for his contributions to crop science. He is also Programme Committee Chair and Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research institute ICARDA, the International Center for Agriculture Research in the Dry Areas. In addition he maintains a busy teaching schedule in Wageningen with many modules related to potato agronomy for the next generation of potato professionals.

Antoon Wallays

After his studies as a civil engineer, Antoon Wallays, together with his business companion and agronomist Luc Raes, created the Belgian potato processing factory, Agristo, in Hulste/Harelbeke. Both Antoon and Luc were sons of farmers and their spouses were active in the administration department of the company making it a real family business.

Since the beginning of his career, he has been active in the Belgian potato trade & processing association, Belgapom. As chairman of the environment group, his role in the development of the Belgian potato industry was one of the most progressive regarding new water purification and re-use technology. He was responsible for the creation of the Flemish guideline for best available technologies, which became a reference document for the EU potato & vegetable processing industry.

As President of Belgapom (2006-2012), he played a crucial role in the development of the Belgian industry federation and the professionalisation of the European Potato Processors Association, of which he was, for a long time, an active board member.

Antoon was also the first President of Vegaplan, the Belgian food and plant safety scheme, which has over 10.000 farmers certified and achieved the golden status for the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative.

His own company, Agristo, evolved to one of the most important Belgian players exporting potato products all over Europe and the world with the development of new production facilities in Tilburg (Netherlands) in 2001, Nazareth in 2011 and Wielsbeke in 2017.

In 2018, the children of Antoon and Luc took over all the management functions to become the second generation to lead this unique potato processing company into new times.

Richard W. “Dick” Okray

Richard W. “Dick” Okray was born in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. The son of Joseph and Patricia Okray, he attended school in Stevens Point and graduated in 1977 from Pacelli High School. In 1981, he taught English in Cali, Colombia and in 1982 he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with B.A. degrees in Economics and Spanish.

He was employed from 1982-2020 at Okray Family Farms in Plover, growing 7,750 acres of quality row crops in Central Wisconsin, specializing in fresh channel potatoes. The farm was started by his family over 110 years ago. His most recent position title was President and Sales. Following his retirement in 2020 he remains a co-owner of the family farm, which won a national environmental stewardship award for its outstanding achievement in the area of pesticide risk reduction.

The international potato industry has benefited greatly from the leadership of Dick Okray. He served on the Executive Committee of the US Potato Board (now known as Potatoes USA) and has served as a potato industry ambassador from the United States, attending multiple World Potato Congress events in China, Scotland, New Zealand and Peru.

He and his wife, Carol, were instrumental in helping raise funds to build multiple wells in impoverished villages near Cameroon, Africa. They established a WellersWalk event in Stevens Point, Wisconsin with participants filling and carrying large water jugs to a central location, raising awareness of the trek many villagers in Africa make daily just to gather enough water for their family’s needs. Funds raised from the annual event were used to construct wells in areas around rural Cameroon, greatly improving the lives of thousands of villagers.

Active in his community and his industry, Dick has served on numerous organizations and boards including: Wisconsin Migrant Labor Council; Central Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.; United Potato Growers of Wisconsin and the United Potato Growers of America. Dick is also widely respected and admired for his philanthropic efforts, serving on the Board of Directors of the St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation, the Edward J. Okray charitable Foundation and recently the Farming for the Future Foundation.

Dick served two terms, including one as Chairman of the International Committee, for the U.S. Potato Board. He also served on the Wisconsin Potato Industry Board from 2015-2020, and held the position of Vice President.

He received the WPVGA Agri-Communicator Award; the Portage County Business Council’s Outstanding Contribution to Agriculture Award; and the prestigious University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Distinguished Alumni Award. In 2019, he was inducted into the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association Hall of Fame.

Source: World Potato Congress Inc.
Cover photo: (left to right) WPC President Romain Cools, Mark Finnessey standing in for Dick Okray, Antoon Wallays, Paul C. Struik, John J. Burke and Tamas Houlihan, Chairman of the Industry Awards Commitee.
Photo credit and courtesy: Jaap Delleman, Director / Editor in chief at Aardappelwereld / PotatoWorld.
Video: A snippet of Day 1 activities at WPC 2022

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