Mid-Columbia farmers become faces of McDonald's french fries

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldDecember 26, 2012 

Bite down on a McDonald's french fry, and you just might be eating potatoes grown in the Mid-Columbia.

Two Mid-Columbia farmers became the face of McDonald's french fries more than a year ago when their stories were featured as part of commercials for the restaurant chain.

The commercials, starring farmers Frank Martinez of Moses Lake and Jenn Bunger of Pasco, were part of a series highlighting the origins of the food that makes up McDonald's menu.

The messages still are being used, said Derek Morrison, public relations manager for the McDonald's Washington State Owners Association.

The commercials are available on the McDonald's website and on YouTube, where Martinez's commercial -- called "Dream Come True" -- has almost 1.5 million views. Bunger's commercial -- called "A Way of Life" -- has almost 734,000 views.

McDonald's has recognized that local communities are more conscious about the food they eat, and wanted to be more transparent about where the food on the menu comes from, Morrison said.

It's important to show that McDonald's uses quality, fresh ingredients and that some of those ingredients come from people's own communities, he said.

"We take a lot of pride not only growing potatoes, but growing the quality McDonald's wants," said Bunger in her commercial.

Martinez, who has served on the Washington State Potato Commission for about 10 years, said that when McCain Foods, one of the processors he works with, approached him about the McDonald's commercial, he said sure. Processors were asked to recommend growers with a good story.

That's exactly what Martinez has. In the commercial, he talked about following crops with his family, migrant farm workers originally from Mexico.

In 1963, his family finally settled in Warden, and his father started to work for a potato operation, he said. Martinez got his start in potatoes working during the summer.

Martinez worked his way to foreman and managed a potato farm before deciding in 1981 to start his own farm, Saddle View Farms, he said. About 31 years later, he is still growing about 950 acres of potatoes in Warden for processors like McCain Foods, Simplot and ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston.

"It was always my dream to have my own farm," he said in the commercial.

A full production crew, plus McDonald's representatives and reporters, visited the Martinez farm during the last week of his 2011 harvest. A long caravan traveled between Martinez's fields and storage, about 50 miles apart, he said. Filming lasted three days. Some of the shots from Bunger's commercial are actually from his farm, as she was already done harvesting.

His commercial shows one of his harvesters pouring potatoes into a waiting truck.

"This is the best potato growing area in the whole world," he said in the commercial.

Washington farmers harvested 9.8 billion pounds of potatoes this year, slightly up from last year. About 90 percent head to processors.

Washington, the first state to start harvesting potatoes, has the second-largest volume in the nation, growing about 21 percent of the U.S. output.

Washington's potato crop was valued at $771 million in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That made it the state's fourth-highest-valued commodity, after apples, milk and wheat.

Martinez's phone started to ring after his commercial was released Jan. 1 during a football game between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.

He's heard praise for McDonald's, and others have told him they were amazed to hear how potatoes were grown.

"They had no idea where potatoes came from," he said.

That's the sort of thing that only happens once in a lifetime, Martinez said.

"McDonald's has been really good to me."

To see the videos, go to www.mcdonalds.com/us/en/supplierstories.html.

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