The air was redolent with the wafting, aromatic scent of grapes ripening on the vine. The two-lane, blacktop roads were littered with the detritus of fallen hops from the pick-up trucks overloaded with the harvested plants. Rows of apple trees being harvested under the clear autumn skies
Here in the Yakima Valley in the midst of 2009 harvest during the middle of September, while harvest was in full swing for many farmers, Steve and Jody Bouchey were already finished with their potato harvest.
Elsewhere in Washington potato farmers were just beginning to bring in their crops, but on this crisp September morning Jody was out disking a field for next year’s planting.
That’s the way the Boucheys operate, just a little bit different from the crowd.
Located near Wapato, Wash., on the northeastern edge of the Yakima Indian Reservation, the Boucheys focus on speciality varieties. Colored potatoes, reds, golds, yellows, whites, purples, fingerlings and french fingerlings. The remaining acreage divided among wheat, alfalfa, mint and corn.
“We grow basically three different kinds of reds, two different kinds of yellows. We do organic russets and I do a potato called an Innovator. We call it a butter russet,” said Jody Bouchey describing the varieties they grow, “and they’re the best tasting russets, you’ve never eaten nothing like it.”
They also grow creamer potatoes of the same varieties that he describes with even greater enthusiasm.
Jody estimates that they farm around 1,200 acres annually, that includes about 200 acres of potatoes. He estimates that 35 percent to 40 percent of their potato acreage is organic and they also have a retail business on site where they sell about 10 percent of their crop.
According to Jody they began their organic operation about 8 or 9 years ago with 10 acres while their father was still involved in the farm.
“My dad said, ‘what the heck are you doing that for?'” Jody recalled.
When that initial 10 acres turned a profit equal to 40 acres, Jody said his father’s response was, ‘oh, that a pretty good deal let’s do that again.’
Along with the increased revenue from growing organic potatoes Bouchey said that he has seen an improvement to the soil.
“We actually try to stay out five years,” Bouchey said when asked how long fields are rotated between plantings.
“We don’t do any fumigation. In organic you can’t. Even in non-organic and conventionals we seem to grow better potatoes if we stay out seven years. The longer, the better,” he said.
Bouchey said that they are constantly expanding their organic share of the operation and eventually not grow conventional potatoes at all.
“Just because the pricing people are getting, russets are too cheap, terrible cheap. There’s just too many. We just don’t wnat to grow that stuff,” he said explaining he and his brother’s reasoning for growing more organic potatoes.
Bouchey said that the biggest problem to running both an organic and conventional operation under one roof is that you can’t interchange the two types of potatoes on the same equipment.
“We clean our lines, steam clean it at the end of the day. I’ll switch chains and different stuff that have to switch t run organic red, organic yukon, organic russets in the same day,” he said, “then the next day I’ll have a conventional two or three days.”
It’s that added and necessary effort in raising and handling organic potatoes that keep larger operations from entering the market according to Bouchey but he can see the day approaching when the “bigger boys decided to grow organic and actually put in a shed and when that day comes organics will be just as cheap as conventional,” he said.
“People from California are getting into it now. Getting into it big time, like 500 acres some guy put in this year. We still had our return customers but they’re like, ‘we can’t pay you 58 cents a pound like we’ve been paying for the last six years,’ so it went down about 10 percent, 20 percent pricing in just one year, because some guy put in 400 to 500 acres and they were actually poor quality. Didn’t know what he was doing but it still was on the market and it brought it all down,” he said with a shrug.
The difference for the Boucheys comes down to quality, in both retail and wholesale sales.
“They know we have pretty good quality,” Jody Bouchey said,”we basically dig it the day the order comes in. Everybody loves that.”
“That’s why they’re so nice. They don’t go through a waiting period. That’s the difference on taste and quality,” he said.
The Bouchey’s emphasis on quality means they don’t allow for a 10 percent cullage to shippers.
According to Jody when the packers see the product their response is ‘oh yeah, there is no cullage in these and we’ll take another load.’
“It’s kind of what we do to beat the system,” said Jody Bouchey.
Beating the system with quality and a respect for their customers.