It can be hard to distinguish yourself when your last name is synonymous with Wisconsin potatoes, when you are the third generation inducted into the Wisconsin Potato Industry Hall of Fame, when your son is chairman of the board of the $100 million-a-year family business.
But that’s not the case for Jerome “Jerry” Bushman. He founded Bushmans’ Inc. in 1974 with an innovative idea, one that started the company down a Wisconsin potato giant’s path.
He wanted to defeat the calendar.
His son, Mitchell, chairman of Bushmans’ Inc., said that Wisconsin potato farmers harvested from August to May, and took summers off.
But potatoes for eight months a year created problems in keeping customers over the other four. Mitchell said his father recognized the importance of continuity with customers.
“He said the two hardest things to do were to start selling the new crop and finish selling the old crop,” Mitchell said. “It’s true.”
He said his father was the first pioneer in the area to see where things had to go. The company has kept the tradition, expanding its growing base to every major growing region in the U.S. and Canada.
Mike Carter, chief executive officer of Bushmans’ Inc., said the Bushman family has dealt in potatoes for 100 years.
Bushman rode the potato railcars between Galloway and Rosholt, Wis. – the headquarters of Bushmans’ Inc. today – and worked for his father on the family farm.
“It sounds like a Norman Rockwell painting,” Carter said.
That painting got bigger as Bushman started his own company and his family grew. He and his wife, Barbara, had two sons, Derrick and Mitchell, and a daughter named Tia.
Along with the growing family, he enjoyed his work. In second grade, Mitchell’s class did a report on parents. They asked what their parents enjoyed doing.
”Most parents said ‘bowling, fishing, that kind of thing,” Mitchell said. “He said, ‘Going to work.’”
Bushman started J&B Marketing when he started Bushmans’ Inc. Later in the 1970s, Bushman created Potato World Inc. and A&W Farms with partner Darrell Koehler. A&W Farms eventually grew 10,000 acres of potatoes, peas, beans and sweet corn until Bushman sold his interest in it in 1999.
Carter said that Bushman created a family culture that remains with the company today.
Now, Derrick and Mitchell are the principle owners of Bushmans’ Inc. and Tia works for other family businesses. The Rockwell painting reached maturity.
But it isn’t forced. Mitchell said Jerry never pressured him into being the fourth generation working for the family business.
“His philosophy was that it’s here for you,” he said, “but take the path you want because that’s where you’ll be successful.”
So Mitchell started his own company as a sophomore in college, following his first passion: helicopters. And it was Jerry’s co-signature that let Mitchell buy his first helicopter.
He did it for nine years before returning to the family business. Now he’s chairman of the board for Bushmans’ Inc.
“I call him the biggest cheerleader the potato industry will ever have,” Mitchell said about Jerry.
If there are potatoes in a grocery store anywhere near Bushman, you can find him handing out potatoes and $5 bills to the first 50 elderly women he sees, Mitchell said. He’ll explain how they’re grown and harvested.
“My children won’t even go to the store with him anymore,” Mitchell said. “He’ll be selling those potatoes.”
That outgoing nature served well with clients too. The produce world is now “very corporate, very structured,” Mitchell said, and people don’t interact the way his father does.
”His relationships with customers were more than work-related,” he said. “They got to be friends.”
His personality naturally led to his involvement in regional and national committees.
Bushman served on the board of directors of the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association for 12 years, most recently from 1999 to 2005. He also spent several years on its marketing committee.
He also served two terms for the U.S. Potato Board and a combined 12 years for the United Fresh Produce Association, six years for the brokers division and six for the growers division.
Bushman has stepped back from the reins of his company, as much as that’s possible for a lifelong potato cheerleader. Call it semi-retired.
“He still plays a huge role in strategy. We continue to look to him for guidance,” Carter said. “He’s seen it all.”
Even if he misses a few days at the office, his presence is still felt.
“He likes to say that he stirs the pot,” Carter said, “and it takes five days to settle down.”