Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association

Badger Common’Tater December 2015 Issue

40 YEARS STRONG Auxiliary Celebrates Notable Anniversary

Part 1 of 4: The First Decade 1975-1985

Arlene Malek (far left) and Gerri Okray (center) and Dianne Somers (right) watch as Pat Diercks helps Wisconsin Governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus replace his traditional red vest with a potato sack vest at a 1982 press conference for the WPGA’s new All-American Potato Cookbook.

Four decades of service, support and camaraderie have empowered countless members of the Wisconsin Potato Growers Auxiliary (WPGA) to play a critical role in shaping the futures of their farming families, agriculture in general, the communities in which they live, the marketing of the produce grown on their farms and the promotion of healthy lifestyles.

The ripple effect of these 40 years’ worth of efforts to promote and advance the potato industry have been felt throughout Wisconsin as WPGA members brought their unique perspectives and backgrounds to the business of farming.


Most organizations arise from single incidents that require a clear-cut response. WPGA is no exception and the incident that launched WPGA originated with former Wisconsin Governor Patrick Joseph Lucey, who served from 1971-1977.

In 1975, Governor Lucey announced he lost 20 pounds by omitting potatoes and bread from his diet. This raised the ire of Wisconsin potato growers’ wives who decided to make him eat his words.

Fortunately, the National Potato Promotion Board released a major advertising campaign focused on the “Low-Calorie Potato,” accompanied by a low-calorie potato cookbook, Potato Lover’s Diet Cookbook.

The Wisconsin potato growers’ wives organized a potato ‘feast’ event to which they invited Governor Lucey and presented him a huge table of 25-30 low-calorie potato dishes prepared from the new cookbook’s recipes, which included appetizers, salads, main dishes and desserts.

Local and state newspapers covered the event and their articles caught the attention of the Associated Press, who distributed them across their network. The articles then re-ran in several newspapers nationwide.

The enormous attention garnered by the Governor’s potato feast encouraged Avis Wysocki to approach the group of wives regarding an idea that had been formulating in her mind; to form an official group dedicated to promoting the benefits of potatoes.

At the time, Avis was a member of the National Potato Council (NPC) Women’s Auxiliary and suggested that the Wisconsin wives springboard off the NPC Women’s Auxiliary to fashion their own professional group.

On March 17, 1975, Dianne Somers presented a proposal to the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) Board of Directors on behalf of a group of potato growers’ wives, describing the importance of establishing an Auxiliary.

During the presentation, Dianne stated, “We must reverse the trend of young people’s palates being geared towards processed foods and an Auxiliary is a means which can do this. We have found a need and we care. In this way we can be a positive and powerful resource to promote and advance the potato and vegetable industry.”

The group was to be comprised of potato growers’ wives who were very knowledgeable about their favorite food, the potato. Their focus would center on educating the public about the potato’s nutritional value through demonstrations, lectures and cooperating with national and state promotion boards.

Somers stressed that the women believed they could also enhance crop value by helping increase demand for potatoes. Operating as a group, the organization would develop more strength and public acceptance than individuals could on their own.

WPVGA warmly accepted the proposal and thus the birth of the Auxiliary occurred, resulting in a forty-year long journey of public education and potato promotion.

As Avis had suggested, the group adopted bylaws patterned after NPC and Red River Valley Auxiliary’s bylaws and elected a Board of Directors and Officers.

A Formulating Committee was created and at the first Annual Meeting on December 10, 1975, the Wisconsin Potato Growers Auxiliary (WPGA) became official. Original officers were President, Dianne Somers; 1st Vice President, Avis Wysocki; 2nd Vice President, Sue Zalewski and Secretary/Treasurer, Arlene Malek. Board of Directors members were Mavis Bushman, Gerri Okray, Frances Gallenberg and Judy Bacon and Member at Large, Mary Lou Sargent.

It was not until many years later on March 18, 1982, that the WPGA branched out on their own as a new entity, which was entitled the Wisconsin Potato Growers Auxiliary, Inc.


In 1977, while Alice in Dairyland was visiting Portage County, she gave the WPGA some advice about future projects and encouraged them to have a booth at the State Fair, in Milwaukee.

The very first Auxiliary Potato Booth was held at the 1976 Rosholt Fair, which was the test run for State Fair. Mavis Bushman worked the booth.

She told them, “If you want to promote potatoes; One, do something other than the ever so popular French Fries, perhaps something healthy since the potato is considered a fattening food and few know about its nutritious value.”

“Two, sell it as a bargain,” she continued.” People respect a bargain, more than free food. Lastly, give them just enough to want one more bite when they have eaten the potato.”

She explained that California was selling jumbo baked potatoes at their fairs and people were getting full after the first half was eaten, often dropping the second half on the ground, then walking on, leaving an unsightly vision of a half-eaten potato.

It was great advice and the WPGA followed it religiously!

With visions of the State Fair lodged in their heads, they thought a practice session might be wise before tackling the big time and decided what better place to start than the 1976 Rosholt Fair? Therefore, that September, their first serious project evolved, a “trial run” at the 1976 Rosholt Fair where the Auxiliary baked potatoes and offered them as “Meal in a Peel” at a fair booth.

The Auxiliary set up their first State Fair Baked Potato booth in 1977.

They sold enough potatoes to feel very successful. This helped them prepare for what it entails to sell food at a fair booth.


However, the WPGA knew that to tackle the State Fair, they would need a leader and found the best – Barb Bushman.

She, along with Dianne Somers and many others, planned for months because this was a huge project! They needed to create a booth, find ovens and refrigerators to lease, storage to keep potatoes cool, someone to deliver them daily to the fair, nearly 100 women to staff the booth for 12 days and lodging for them while they were there, wash water, tubs, supplies, etc.

1981 Oconomowoc, WI High School Health Fair display was just one of the many places where Auxiliary members promoted the nutritional value of potatoes.

Whenever anyone had a problem, Barb always had a solution. She was the perfect leader, had many connections and knew how to make things happen with the help of the other Auxiliary workers as well.

That first year, August of 1977, the WPGA travelled to West Allis to operate a booth at the Wisconsin State Fair armed with an oven that baked two hundred potatoes at a time, potato bags, posters and information pamphlets.

Twelve groups of women worked rotating shifts, fulfilling the demand for delicious baked potatoes, which out-paced supply and all expectations.

A volunteer crew from a State Fair Baked Potatoes booth. Front far right is Anita Polzin, center front is Ruth Danczyck and fifth from left in the back row, is Ellen Wysocki.

By the sixth day of the eleven-day event, new supplies were rushed to the fairgrounds to replenish the supply. That first year, the women sold more than 20,000 potatoes for 25 cents each and brought in $5,000, almost enough to cover expenses.

This was taken back when the State Fair baked potatoes were only 50 cents. Harriet Wysocki is on the far left side and Deb Wolter is the first person facing the camera from the left.

Elated by the warm welcome from those eagerly buying their potatoes, they were further surprised by the State Fair committee who wrote a letter to Harold Sargent, the WPVGA executive director, stating, “Your booth was such a success that you need to consider expanding with a larger booth and we will help.”

The next few years, their State Fair project grew and soon, they were competing with the very famous State Fair cream puffs. By 1981, they made a profit of $9,000, afterwards raising their potato price to 35 cents each.

Wisconsin State Fair goers are still drawn by the salivating scent of baked potatoes permeating from the Ag Products Building where they hungrily return year after year for the treat of a fresh baked potato with choice of toppings to refresh and reenergize themselves.


Besides the State Fair, the Auxiliary members promoted potatoes at local events, fairs, school programs and classrooms on a weekly basis.

Harriet Wysocki (L) and Barb Pavelski (R) wash and inspect potatoes at one of the State Fair Baked Potato booths.

Word spread and it did not take long for people to know about the WPGA and ask for presentations.

Arlene Malek and Dianne Somers presented demonstrations on many local radio and TV programs throughout the state. They also handed out literature regarding National Potato Promotion Board’s marketing campaign on the 99% fat-free nutritious potato, plus, new ways of serving potatoes along with their ‘Meal in a Peel’ flyers.

Then in 1978, they published their first cookbook, the WPVGA Auxiliary Potato Cook Book. It was shaped like a potato, filled with 88 pages of favorite recipes contributed by the Auxiliary members and clipped together by two round clips.

This cookbook was a good tool to get people out of the ho-hum-potato rut and begin using potatoes as main dishes, desserts and appetizers.

In order to save money, about ten volunteers laid the 88 pages around ping pong and pool tables, and other surfaces in Harriet Wysocki’s basement and walked around the tables, collating pages and compiling cookbooks, one at a time.

The cookbooks sold fast and are a collector’s item today because so few still exist.


By 1981, the WPGA knew they wanted to publish another cookbook since the first one was such a success, but they knew it had to be sturdier and more professional.

Prior to the Auxiliary being officially formed, this “Auxiliary in Action” column appeared on the back cover of the June 1975 Badger Common’Tater and ran for several issues afterwards. Dianne Somers and Avis Wysocki first approached the WPVGA board regarding the idea of an Auxiliary on St. Patrick’s Day, 1975. WPVGA supported the idea and gave the ladies $100 for organizational expenses!

A committee chaired by Gerri Okray and Pat Diercks was formed, who procured a loan backed by several growers and the project was underway with the Benjamin Company, a cookbook publisher, guiding them through the process.

Together, everyone gathered new, innovative kitchen-tested potato recipes under Gerri and Pat’s tireless direction. Searching for a unique idea for supplementary photos, they hit on the idea of incorporating antique kitchen utensils, confiscating some temporarily from Auxiliary members.

To make certain the cookbook photographs were of high quality, Gerri and Pat flew to California to supervise the photo session, taking props, potato bags and fresh Wisconsin potatoes with them.

In the Benjamin Company’s kitchens, Gerri and Pat decided what recipes to include and cooked the recipes that would be pictured in the cookbook. Each photo took several hours to create since every prop and the food pictured had to be perfectly placed to present each potato dish beautifully and make it appear mouthwatering.

The All-American Potato Cookbook made its debut in 1982 and was beautiful! It had a professional, colored, glossy cover, 160-page interior featuring 20 pages accentuated with gorgeous pictures of prepared food dishes. This cookbook included 235 potato recipes for everything from snacks and appetizers to main dishes and desserts, even many unique potato dishes from different parts of the world and cultures.

The WPGA published 75,000 spiral-bound cookbooks and sold 11,000 by the end of that year for $3.50 each.

Wisconsin Governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus joined the Auxiliary at the State Fair during the summer of 1982 for the All-American Potato Cookbook’s first press conference, which was complete with a private tent, press kits and more!

A photo of the Auxiliary’s first, highly collectible cookbook, published in 1978.

Several tables displayed 10 of the mouthwatering dishes in the new cookbook for all reporters and guests to sample.

Auxiliary members presented the Governor with a red lined potato bag vest, in honor of the red vests, which he always wore. They also gave him a potato bag filled with the new cookbook, which truly represented Something Special from Wisconsin, the theme for Wisconsin products.


To discover new ways to use potatoes, the WPGA sponsored recipe contests during the 1980s. Cooks statewide were invited to enter their own recipes in four categories.

The State Fair Baked Potato booth sells thousands of potatoes every summer. Pat Diercks (middle) transports a tray of potatoes.

Ten finalists in each category then prepared their recipes, which featured mouthwatering names like “Smoky-Hot Jackets with Special Cheese Sauce” and “Cheese and Broccoli Shrimp Boats.”

The contests, co-sponsored by the Wisconsin Potato Industry Board, Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, Wisconsin Potato Growers Auxiliary and Wisconsin Department of Ag, Trade and Consumer Protection, provided very creative publicity.

In 1976, WPVGA’s Badger Common’Tater started Auxiliary News column, which reported the Auxiliary’s accomplishments and a What’s Cookin’ column to offer new recipes to readers, which appeared continuously for twelve years.

2015 WPGA Auxiliary Board, left to right: Sheila Rine, Kathy Bartsch, Paula Houlihan (President), Gabrielle Okray Eck (Secretary/Treasurer), Deniell Bula, Lynn Isherwood (Vice President) and Patty Hafner.


By the early 80s, Auxiliary members were appearing at conventions, trade shows, wellness events, and making many guest appearances around the state.

The State Fair, still their largest event, broke records every year. By 1983, they were selling 57,775 potatoes for 50 cents/each, generating $28,887 in revenue and their ‘Baked Potato with Toppings’ grew to be ‘the No.1 food’ to absolutely find and eat at the Fair.

Many other projects presented themselves during that first decade, such as working with legislators to change the state estate tax laws to benefit farm continuity, educating members so they could be spokespersons for the industry and answer questions about potato production and nutrition, monitoring how potato displays are managed in stores and encouraging use of potatoes in school lunch programs.

During this first decade, the Auxiliary also started distributing placemats they designed that offered potato information, trivia, history and nutritional facts to restaurants across the state. In 1994, the distribution number jumped to one million, making a grand total of 2.2 million placemats perused while hungry patrons waited for their food.

Altogether, it was a truly amazing and productive first decade for the Wisconsin Potato Growers Auxiliary!

Dianne Somers and Avis Wysocki at a National Potato Council (NPC) Annual Awards Banquet.


Gone but not Forgotten

By Dianne Somers

On October 27, 2015, Wisconsin’s potato and vegetable industry lost a very caring and influential friend, Avis Marie Wysocki, who passed away, a victim of lung cancer.

Wife of Louis and mother of Jacquie, Gary, Jim, Therese and Russell, Avis was the one they turned to for advice in personal and business affairs.

In her quiet way, she was a listener and drew people to her. Every one of her 17 grandchildren felt they were each the special grandchild. She had a unique and loving relationship with everyone.

Avis had a very strong bond with her sisters and spent valuable time with them, other family members and friends at her favorite place, the family cottage, engaging in golfing, playing cards or deep conversations, often with that twinkle in her eyes and smile on her face, teasing her accomplice or relating a favorite story.

She also had lifelong, wonderful friends in the industry and played an influential part in WPGA history. Few people may know, but she is the one of the founders of the Auxiliary.

It was actually her idea to establish a Ladies’ Auxiliary to WPVGA as well as her idea to initiate a scholarship program within the Auxiliary.

She brought forth these concepts, rallied people around her and with them, built a strong organization in the Auxiliary, which is about to celebrate 40 successful years.

All of us in the industry are forever grateful to her for her vision, contributions and support throughout 40 years of accomplishments. I think we should honor her by calling her what she was, the “Founder of the Auxiliary.”

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December 2015 Badger Common'Tater

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