U.S. Potato Industry
U.S. Grower Profiles
Did you know the vast majority of all potato farms in the U.S. are family owned? It’s true! From California to the Carolinas, families just like yours work hard year-round to nurture, grow and deliver potatoes from their farm to your local market. Take a moment and meet some of the special men and women from across the country who are proud to help feed you and your family.
Larry was raised on a family-owned dairy farm in Wisconsin — so you'd think farming would have been a natural career choice for Larry. In fact, it wasn't. After completing college he set off on his own and became a CPA.
A series of life-changing events in 1981 brought Larry back to agriculture and into a partnership in a small produce business (Alsum Produce) that repackaged potatoes and onions. By 1989 he was in a joint-venture farming deal for 3 years, and then in 1992 he started the 750-acre Alsum Farms, Inc. Today, Alsum Farms & Produce, Inc is packing and marketing over 1.8 million cwt of potatoes. The farming operation has expanded to 1,900 acres of fresh market potatoes including russets, reds, golds, whites, and fingerlings.
Alsum Farms is very involved in Wisconsin's Potato Sustainability program, "Healthy Grown®". Larry says it isn't always easy, but he wouldn't have it any other way. "As we became more involved in farming, I realized that the decisions we made as farmers were intricately linked to the environment beyond our farms," he explained. "It's a great learning opportunity. Being part of Healthy Grown® has really helped me understand what I'm doing as a farmer, why I'm doing what I'm doing, and the impact my decisions have on the environment and people who work with me."
Larry and his wife, Paula, have been married for 37 years. They have five children: Timothy, Heidi, Wendy, Chad and Noah. They also have six grandchildren. Four of the children work in the business as IT manager, marketing manager, financial analyst, and in the packing shed. The youngest is still in grade school, but enjoys the trips to the farm to help. Farming and the produce industry offers lots of challenges and opportunities and it is exciting to have our family involved in so many aspects of the farm and business.
In the small town of Center, Colorado, Ken Burback continues his family's tradition of farming and operates Bigelow Associated Farms. Ken is a fourth generation farmer of German descent. His great-grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1901 from Russia. At one point in his life, Ken lived and worked in Ukraine, not far from where his ancestors lived.
Ken began growing potatoes in 1980. "Potatoes are just fun to grow," he remarks. "The industry is very interesting and full of the greatest people in the world. I enjoy the new technologies and innovation of the potato industry. Potato people across the U.S. are the best."
Ken's family has always been involved in farming. When asked why he became a farmer, Ken explains, "It's in my blood." He feels connected with the soil. "God always intended man to be connected to soil and crops and to honor God by caring for both. I am very proud to be part of that and be a farmer and a producer of potatoes."
Potato farming is truly a family tradition for Rex Calloway. As a third generation potato farmer, he and his wife Melva run Calloway Northwest LLC in the town of Quincy, Washington. Rex's grandfather moved the family from Oklahoma in 1951 to the Columbia Basin. What began as a modest family farm of 160 acres has grown to 3,000 acres today.
Their love of the land, commitment to environmental stewardship, and passion for growing food to feed the world has been passed on to their two sons. Being outside and seeing a crop go from planting through harvest; ultimately, being developed into food is what Rex enjoys most about farming.
Dan Chin is a third generation potato farmer in Klamath Falls, an area which spans the California-Oregon border. His grandfather, Sam Wong, immigrated to the United States from mainland China in 1914. "He always said the U.S. was the land of opportunity. He had it in his mind that he was going to come over and raise potatoes."
Wong pursued his dream, despite the failure of his two farming ventures, first in California and then in Nevada. He finally was in the right place at the right time in 1930 after purchasing farmland in the Klamath Falls where he and his son, George, began growing potatoes. In 1999 Dan bought the operation from his father and changed the name to Wong Potatoes, and today, they continue growing, sorting, packing, and shipping potatoes. His dad, now 85, oversees the trucking operation.
Dan and his wife, Dee Dee, farm 4000 acres of land with 1200 acres dedicated to cultivating 20 different varieties of potatoes, from reds, yellows, purples, whites, and fingerlings. His operation has increased its organic potato production from 10 percent in 2003 to nearly 75 percent presently. They also grow onions, dairy-quality hay, red and white wheat. Under the name of Wong Potatoes, they operate a fresh-pack potato facility and sell throughout the U.S. and Pacific Rim countries.
Justin Dagen of Karlstad, Minnesota, is a 5th generation farmer. For 129 years, his family has farmed in the Springbrook Township, which is just 55 miles south of the Canadian border. He has been on this "character building journey" for 35 years, but with the assistance and support of his wife, Donna, and their four children, he still loves it.
Growing certified seed potatoes has been the mainstay of his farm for more than 75 years. His father passed away when he was just 17, so Justin chose to follow in his footsteps and assumed management of the operation in 1977, "albeit with some apprehension," he says.
Justin is glad to be a potato producer, providing nutrition for people far and near. He thinks that most people would be surprised to learn how committed farmers are to the pursuit of growing quality potatoes and to environmental stewardship. "We're glad to be feeding the nation, one delicious potato at a time."
Steve & Andy Diercks
Coloma Farms is a study of innovation and tradition — a 2,700-acre sustainable farm run by third and fourth generation growers, Steve and Andy Diercks. Steve grew up on a potato farm near Antigo, Wisconsin. He moved with his father, Robert, to the Central Sands Plains region in Coloma, Wisconsin, where they developed a great working relationship with the University of Wisconsin (UW) potato researchers — part of the first stages leading to the development of Healthy Grown®. Steve and Andy were involved from the beginning and much of the research done on their farm was integral to the establishment of the Healthy Grown standards.
"The challenge of sustainable farming is producing good quality and high yielding crops while minimizing the impact on the environment. Our experiences working with the potato team at the UW taught us we could do things differently and not only produce exceptional potatoes, but do it in a better way," notes Andy.
Adds Steve, "We question every step we take on our farm. Working with UW research teams has really challenged our conventional way of thinking — and that benefits everyone."
Concludes Andy, "Wisconsin is the ‘green' potato state — and we're very proud of that."
Richard & Rod Gumz
Brothers Richard and Roderick Gumz formed Gumz Muck Farms, LLC in 1994 and are the fourth generation of Gumz family farmers. They grow, store and pack red potatoes and yellow globe onions for retail sale. The Gumz brothers raise red potatoes, carrots, field corn, soybeans and mint on 6,000 acres in three Wisconsin counties — Marquette, Columbia and Sauk.
Crops grown by the Gumz brothers are geared toward muck soils because most of their land is comprised of muck soils. The Gumz brothers are Healthy Grown potato growers who, as stewards of the land, proudly utilize integrated pest management techniques on their farms, as well as responsible agricultural
As soon as Eric was old enough to reach up and take hold of a steering wheel, he began contributing as a working member on his family's farm. He attended North Dakota State University and graduated with a degree in agriculture and bio-systems engineering. He officially began farming in 1999, and today he is the executive vice president of technology for his family's farm, Black Gold.
The Black Gold multi-generational story began in 1928 when Eric's great grandfather, A.E. Halverson, started growing potatoes on land he had homesteaded in Forest River, ND. Next in the line of succession was Grandfather Jack Halverson, who further developed and improved the farm. Then Eric's father, Gregg Halverson, current president and CEO, brought significant growth and advancement, when he expanded operations beyond North Dakota.
Today, the family farms in Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Maryland, Indiana, Michigan, and Louisiana, in addition to North Dakota. Chipstock is by far their largest potato crop, but they also produce seed potatoes, and fresh market types, including red, white, fingerling and yellow-flesh potatoes.
At this stage in life, Eric has two main priorities. First, his family: wife Yvette and their three young daughters, Lucy, Stella and Ruby. The other is continuing the family tradition of potato production. "I am thankful to wake up every day and work in the potato industry. I get excited about the fact that the potato is as versatile as it is, everyone has some type of potato product they love!"
Randy & Karlene Hardy
Meet potato growers, Randy and Karlene Hardy; high school sweethearts, born, raised and now thriving in Oakley, a small town nestled between mountains in south-central Idaho, population 673. Karlene says of her husband, "I knew when I was dating him that he took the farm very seriously."
In June 1972, Randy and Karlene were married and moved home from college to help his father with their 300-acre farm. Two months later, his father passed away and Randy began running the farm. Today, the Hardy's and son, Ben, along with two full-time employees operate Hardy Farms, Inc, a 3000-acre family farming operation. They grow wheat, barley, alfalfa, and corn silage, along with 625 acres of fresh Russet Burbank potatoes.
The way of life in rural Idaho can't be beat, Karlene asserts. They raised five children, all of them boys but one, and beam about their 26 grandchildren. "We have worked as a family and been able to pass on the love of the farm, respect for nature and appreciation of hard work to our children and grandchildren."
Potatoes are definitely a staple in the Hardy's diet. Among their favorite recipes are French fries and skin-on mashed potatoes, potato casserole, potato rolls and Spudnuts. If there was one word to describe potatoes, the Hardy's would say, "versatile."
Randy looks at being able to continue to farm as one of his greatest personal achievements. "I have seen so many good people have to leave this way of life. I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to raise my family on the farm and still be able to work outdoors and feel the real accomplishment of raising crops. The potato industry has helped me live a good life."
Although he jokingly denies it, Randy first noticed Karlene when he tried to run over her with his bicycle in second grade. It took another nine years before they danced their first dance, when he was a junior and she was a senior in high school and the rest is history. Randy and Karlene celebrated their 40th anniversary on June 8, 2012.
Bet you didn't know this. One of Wisconsin's Healthy Grown potato growers — Justin Isherwood — is an accomplished author. And because of those talents, he has been interviewed on National Public Radio's quiz show — Michael Feldman's Whad'Ya Know?
He is a man with a talent for words. So when you ask Justin about the importance of Healthy Grown and a farmer's responsibility to the land and people, he is quite eloquent. "There has always been an ethic to the land, a righteousness to seek that balance of the economics of the field and woods, that sacred honor of keeping land well and productive," he notes.
It's a responsibility shared by his entire family. His family has been farming in Wisconsin since 1832, and living on the current Isherwood Farm since 1852. He shares responsibility for the farm with his two brothers, his son, their wives and children — and they've all been part of Healthy Grown since its inception. For Justin, "farming is a family tradition; the farm connects the family to each other and to the land."
The Isherwoods are committed to the ecosystem conservation aspect of Healthy Grown. According to Justin, "It is, or ought to be, in the bones of every farmer, the will to defend the land's identity, its power and its mysteries."
When Justin isn't writing or tending to taters, he's out tapping maple trees on his family farm in Plover, Wisconsin, near the Buena Vista Marsh.
Growing up on a potato farm, Brett knew this is what he always wanted to do. A third generation farmer, he learned the art of growing potatoes from his father. In 1994, after attending Rick's College in Rexburg, Idaho, and Utah State University, Brett started his own operation from scratch. Today, he operates Brett Jensen Farms in Idaho Falls, where he grows russet Burbank potatoes for the fresh market and Ranger russets for processing. Also, he is part owner of a fresh-packing shed and grows wheat, malt barley, alfalfa and corn.
Brett is married to Kristy, and they have five children—Jace, Rylee, Brayden, Karson and Bella. He likes to spend time hunting, fishing and traveling with Kristy, and, of course, participating with their children's basketball, baseball and football teams.
One of his favorite times of the year is fall: "I love harvest and filling potato storages."
Klaren & Cheryl Koompin
Koompin Farms, awarded for environmental stewardship, began in 1959 as an 135-acre farm, 30 of which were in potatoes. Today, it is an 14,000 acre operation on which 3,300 acres of potatoes are grown. The "third generation," sons Kamren and Kael Koompin, are already actively involved with the day-to-day operation, and are dedicated to continuing the Koompin legacy. This family is passionate about potatoes.
In 2005, Cheryl Koompin traveled to West Africa on the U.S. Potato Board's International Food Aid Initiative to help teach Senegalese people to prepare U.S. dehydrated potatoes. Today, she remains actively involved with the USPB, dedicated to growing the potato industry's efforts in this area.
"As farmers, we are blessed to produce an abundance of nutritious food. Yet almost half of the world is malnourished because of starvation and poverty. This trip opened my eyes to how I could fulfill my own personal mission while helping to preserve the economic livelihood for potatoes. It's not complicated–we can revive our local farm economy by feeding the world."
Keith LaBrie is a 3rd generation potato grower in St. Agatha, Maine, one of the northeastern-most locations in the United States. Both he and his brother, Duane, finished college in 1989 and returned to the farm to officially become growers. They are particularly grateful for their parents' support and guidance as they became established. In 2008, their father ‘retired.' Still, it remains, in Keith's words, "a true family farm," as both parents are actively involved, along with Keith's and Duane's respective wives and kids.
The brothers grow varieties of potatoes bound for both the produce section and for French fry processing. However, the 1,200 acres of potatoes they grow are just as important as the conservation practices they employ. The LaBrie family has been honored for their stewardship of the land. Keith credits his grandfather and father for implementing conservation practices and teaching his brother and him about its importance. "We were taught that land is a valuable resource, and in order to pass it on to the next generation we need to protect it."
Keith and his wife, Jocelyne, have a daughter and a son. "From a very young age, I had a strong connection to the land," LaBrie explained. "I consider continuing the family tradition of farming a great opportunity for me and my family."
Meet Rod Lenz. He and his three brothers are 2nd generation potato growers of Lenz Family Farms in Holyoke, Colorado. Rod was inspired to become a potato grower because of the risk reward element of farming. "There are so many threats to the crop: weather, insects, weeds. It takes a war-room mentality to stay ahead. I love the challenge to raise quality potatoes." However, the family cohesion is the aspect of his operation he has become most proud, as the third generation is now intimately involved in the day-to-day farming.
One thing Rod thinks that most people would be surprised to learn about the life of a potato grower is the need for absolute dedication to detail and preparedness. "It still even amazes me. There is so much more to farming than planting and waiting to see what happens."
Arnold Mack of Lake Wales, Florida, began his farming career at an early age. His family had a small farm in Alabama, growing food items for the family store and for themselves. This inspired him to begin farming watermelons in 1967. And in 1989 he began farming potatoes on just 300 acres. Today, his operation has grown to 2,100 acres and continues to expand. Arnold enjoys being actively involved in every phase of the business and learning new things each day with his wife Brenda and two sons, Chandler and Jon David.
Mack Farms is unique in that they harvest some the first fresh new crop potatoes in the nation each year, while the rest of the country's weather is still in the deep freeze. They grow new crop red, white, and yellow flesh potatoes. Additionally, for the past 3 years, they have grown fingerling potatoes.
Arnold enjoys the challenges and unpredictability of farming. "Everything will be going along like this for a while," he explains, "then all the sudden things take a turn for the better or for the worse."
For eight generations the Masser family has been cultivating potatoes. Keeping the tradition alive, Dave Masser continues this heritage on Sterman Masser Farms in Sacramento, PA. As a child Dave was inspired by his father’s passion for the business and satisfaction for producing a crop.
“Both of my parents were raised in potato farming families, so it really is part of my DNA,” Dave explained. “Both of my grandfathers were potato farmers, and I was blessed to know both men growing up and have them part of my life. They inspired me to do what I do today.”
In addition to his inherited passion for potato farming, Dave loves the challenges of growing potatoes in the eastern United States. “We face so many challenges here with terrain, rocks, and weather. Producing a quality crop in these conditions is very satisfying.” Of course to be successful, every farm needs a strong team of great people. Dave is especially proud of his team. “They have been the key to our success and the cornerstone for growth. They share the passion for the business and the desire to feed people healthy, safe, nutritious vegetables.”
For five generations the Myers family has called the state of Oregon home. The son of school teachers, it seemed unlikely that Marty would become a farmer. However, inspired by Ron Offutt, one of the nation's largest potato growers, he began Threemile Canyon Farms, LLC, in Boardman, Oregon, just 150 miles east of Portland in the Columbia River Basin.
Threemile Canyon Farms, Marty explains, is a living example that a big farm can be green too. Recognized as a leader in sustainable agricultural practices over the past decade, they have demonstrated that forward-looking green farming can be good for both business and the environment. In addition to potatoes, Threemile Canyon Farms produces dairy products and organic vegetables.
By practicing the best sustainable farming techniques – whether they involve leading-edge technology or age-old natural processes –they are providing a living laboratory for model agricultural practices. And both our size and location – far removed from towns and population centers – provide plenty of area for crop rotation, wildlife buffers and composting dairy wastes. They use advanced technology to provide traceability on all their crops and cattle to assure the quality our customers expect. To help Oregon become a leader in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, Threemile Canyon Farms is partnering on innovative, renewable energy projects including a dairy digester that creates electricity from processing manure. The farm is creating thirty percent of the electricity it uses for irrigation and other farming activities.
Marty is married to Anne and has for sons—Jason, Casey, Nick and Eric. He enjoys golf, cycling and sports activities and events, and perhaps, above all, loves being with his four grandchildren who live in Oregon, as well.
Nick comes from a family of farmers — he's third-generation — but is now the only remaining family member who is a farmer. Together, he and his wife share responsibility for their 400-acre Healthy Grown Wisconsin potato farm.
A member of Healthy Grown from its inception, Nick can appreciate how far the sustainable growing program has come. "It was a long process. Once we had decided that we wanted to do things differently — sustainably — we had to find others who could help us. We started by speaking with University of Wisconsin researchers and circumstances brought us together with the World Wildlife Fund," he states. "It was important to us that we had definitive sustainable standards that growers had to meet on an annual basis, so the process took longer than we expected — 18 months. But it was worth it."
"We've accepted a challenge — to be sustainable. And we can do it. We've been doing it for more than 10 years.
Ultimately, what we do is better for the environment. At the end of the day, and all our hard work, I get to go out into nature and see the wildlife around me. For those of us that grew up on the land, I feel like I have a responsibility to keep it in a natural state," he concludes.
Sid Staunton of Tulelake, California, is a third generation farmer. He and his two brothers, Marshall and Ed, run Staunton Farms, a 5,000 acre farm. They grow Russets, Organic Russets, Klamath Pearls and Red Potatoes. They also produce wheat, barley, onions, alfalfa and peppermint and are committed to sustainable farming practices. Joining them just three years ago is Marc, Sids' 28 year-old son. Still frequenting the farm to "stick his hands in the soil" is Sid's dad, John.
The Staunton legacy began when Sid's grandfather homesteaded in 1929, drawn to the lake by the large number of water fowl. In October of that year his grandfather's economic standing changed completely–from an investor to a farmer–in 24 hours!
"I was going to be an investment banker," Sid explained. "Then fate stepped in. The freedom of being outside and changing job descriptions hourly drew me back to the farm, and choosing this lifestyle to raise a family kept me here. My sons' passion for growing crops is a reflection of what my father passed down to me."
Sid and his wife, Tammie, have been married 30 years. Tammie grew up in Troutdale, Oregon. Today, she oversees the financials of the farm, managing all accounts on the profit and loss statements. They have three children: Kappie, Marc and Curtis. Sid and Tammie agree that the keys to their success in business has been basing decisions on what is right, staying grounded in faith and keeping family first.
Don Thibodeau is a fifth generation potato grower from Fryeburg, Maine. His family farm, Green Thumb Farms, Inc., strives to preserve Maine's open spaces and agricultural heritage, growing potatoes, turf, dry beans and corn on 2,200 acres of rich Saco River Valley soil in Western Maine. The opportunity to develop and grow an agricultural operation inspired him to stay involved in the family business. "It offered me independence and encouraged my entrepreneurial spirit."
He is proud that Green Thumb has been able to continually change with the demands of the industry. They continue to grow in size and technology—even in product diversity. In fact, in 2005, Maine Distilleries (developed in partnership by Don and his brother, Lee) proudly launched a new venture, Cold River Vodka, made from Green Thumb Farms' potatoes.
This venture is the result of stories imparted on Don and his brother by his father's uncle and father who distilled potato vodka before and during prohibition in the 1920's in the U.S. Today, in addition to its classic vodka, Maine Distilleries produces Blueberry Flavored Cold River Vodka made from wild Maine blueberries and potatoes as well as Cold River Gin. They believe that Cold River Vodka represents the only family-owned "ground-to-glass" vodka operation in the world.
Throughout the years Green Thumb Farms has seen many changes and experienced growth beyond their dreams. Although the farm is family-owned, Don explains: "We owe our success to the hard work and dedication of our loyal employees. Farming is a crucial part of the Fryeburg area economy, and we take deep pride in doing our part to sustain this great small community and the legacy of Maine agriculture."
RPE (aka Russet Potato Exchange) has been around since the '60s. Started by the Wysocki brothers, RPE continues to be a family business — and one that holds itself to a higher standard as both a Healthy Grown® grower and shipper (Healthy Grown shippers must be certified annually).
Why bother with the extra work involved with sustainability? Answers Russ, "We're stewards of the land — and this is our opportunity to do good things for the land and good things for the industry." In fact, Russ feels Healthy Grown can be an impetus for good things to come. "Sustainable farming is a great niche in the market. It improves Wisconsin's image and we hope it will inspire other states to follow suit."
Asked what Healthy Grown had done for him as a grower, Russ concluded, "It really has bridged the gap between environmental and farming issues."