Mark Duffin is as busy as ever now, but next fall plans to retire as executive director of the Idaho Sugar Beet Growers Association, a post he has held since April 1991.
His replacement is expected to be hired early next year, and the two will work together until Duffin’s planned retirement at the end of September.
“I will miss this job and the people I work with,” he said.
Duffin is now busy on several fronts. He is monitoring trade issues, as he has done since taking the job in April 1991 as the North American Free Trade Agreement was developing. He’s keeping an eye on what during his tenure would be the sixth version of a federal farm bill, which in current form retains the longstanding sugar program. He’s preparing for the 2019 Idaho legislative session he and others said figures to include several proposals related to agriculture and the environment as it gets underway in January.
He said he enjoys working with other Idaho agricultural commodity organizations, more broadly focused ag groups such as Food Producers of Idaho and the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, and members of the state legislature, where he served in the House of Representatives from 1984 to 1990.
Duffin has also been active in national sugar industry groups over the years.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said. “This has combined my two interests, ag and politics. Our growers are great people to work for and with, and I have enjoyed working with our state legislators and other ag groups.
“We have the same goals, promoting and looking out for the interests of Idaho agricultural producers,” Duffin said.
He grew up on his family’s farm near Aberdeen, largely “in a beet field, harvesting beets and irrigating,” he said. He and his brother, Glen, eventually struck out on their own; they grew other types of crops on a farm southwest of American Falls from about 1980 to 1990, before Mark rented his share to his brother. They did not grow beets, he said, because they were a bit too far from a receiving station.
Along the way, Duffin went on a two-year Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission to Japan and returned to school to complete a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Utah.
When he was serving in the Idaho Legislature and attending the university, a professor often asked him in class about Idaho government.
“I’ve just always had this natural interest in government and the political process,” Duffin said.
He was in a southeast Idaho potato packing plant when a grower there suggested he apply for the then-open position leading the Sugar Beet Growers Association, whose members in many cases grow beets and other crops. He succeeded Ron Foster.
Idaho’s sugar beet industry lacks a marketing- and research-focused commission, in part because growers already have a buyer: since 1997, their cooperative owns the three Amalgamated Sugar processing plants in the state. The Snake River Sugar Beet Research and Seed Alliance works on research.
Sugar beet growers have become more efficient and productive thanks in part to new varieties and cultural practices, though costs have increased and prices haven’t changed much in decades, Duffin said.
Innovations have included a mono-germ seed that sends up one shoot instead of the multi-germ predecessor’s three — making thinning and stand establishment easier — and the sometimes controversial move to genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant seed.
“The quality of the varieties is so much better,” Duffin said. “It has made a big difference in the crop.”
This year’s sugar beet crop of some 182,000 acres, the second biggest ever behind 2016 for southern Idaho and part of eastern Oregon, had a yield of 40-plus tons per acre and sugar content of 18.5 percent on average, he said.
“When I was growing up, my dad always figured a 20-ton crop was a good crop,” Duffin said. Those 1960s and ‘70s crops often had 16 to 16.5 percent sugar content, he said.