A True Family Farm
Running the Bedlington seed farm in the northwest corner of Washington state is a true family affair. Located in the community of Lynden, the farm is just over 10 miles south of the Canadian border.
Scott Bedlington oversees the daily operations and his sister, Melissa Bedlington-Kleindel, is in charge of the financial end, running the office staff, keeping the farm inspections up to date and handling overseas shipping. Melissa’s husband, Nate Kleindel, is the warehouse manager and oversees the shipping, storage and grading operations.
Their father, Dick, remains involved in the marketing end of the seed farm and their stepmother, Marlys, runs the tissue culture lab and the greenhouses.
We’re kind of a team,” Scott said of the farm’s operation and division of labor. “We’ve been working at it a lot of years, so we’ve kind of developed a way we run our own departments. It’s a system we’ve developed over the last 15 years.”
The farm began in the 1950s when Gordon Bedlington, Scott and Melissa’s grandfather, bought a few acres after working for potato growers in the area. By the time his son, Dick, took over the operation in the early 1970s, the farm had grown to about 250 acres
Dick kept growing the farm to its current size of almost 3,000 acres, with 800 in seed potatoes, about 500 fallow acres, and the rest in corn silage, alfalfa and a little bit of grain.
Today, the third generation of Scott and Melissa has taken control of the operation. They began purchasing the farm from Dick in 2001 and completed the transition in January, 2013.
Scott said that everything that he and Melissa have today, they owe to the hard work of their father.
“He’s done a great job,” Scott said. “His father gave him the opportunity and my dad took it from there and expanded it. I honestly believe it’s from hard work and doing it the right way.”
Both Scott and Melissa extol the work ethic their father instilled in them while growing up on the farm.
“He taught us how to work hard and how to do it the right way, to do a good job,” Scott said. “There’s two ways of doing it. There’s top shelf doing it and there’s bottom shelf doing it and we consider ourselves top shelf and it’s because of the way he’s trained us.”
Melissa said that she learned a “very strong work ethic” from her father.
“You’ve got to give 100 percent to keep your business going as well as keep your crew motivated,” she said. “That’s one thing we all pride ourselves on. We own the business but we also get down there and work with our crew. We’re very hands-on management.”
She remembers sorting potatoes on the line and roguing potatoes as well as driving tractors and forklifts while growing up.
“He gave us opportunities to learn the business and we took advantage of it,” Melissa said.
“I started them off at the very bottom,” said Dick Bedlington. “They had to do every job that everybody else did. That’s why they learned it, so they could teach it.”
When Dick talks about the farm he emphasizes that it is a total family operation with his son-in-law, Nate Kleindel, an equal member in the operation.
While everyone has their separate areas of labor, the team has monthly meetings to review and discuss budgets and purchases, Melissa said.
“I’ve never seen them in a major argument, ever,” said Dick. “They have a complaint they bring it out in the meeting and when the meeting’s over with they’re in the same direction.”
“Communication is a huge thing,” Dick said.
During the past 10 years the farm has grown as they’ve acquired new land and new equipment to keep up with the work.
“Five, 10 years ago we did everything ourselves. Of course we didn’t have the size and amount of volume that we do now,” Scott said. “I think with the equipment that we’ve purchased, the new ways of doing things, instead of doing it the hard way we do it the right way. We’ve made a lot of changes the last five years in harvesting, planting, shipping. Eliminating labor is what we’re trying to do.”
Scott estimates that they grow between 30 to 40 varieties these days, which is a big difference from when he started and they were growing eight varieties.
“Reds, yellows, whites, russets, fingerlings, specialties, purples,” he said. “We grow about everything out there. We grow about 12 different fingerling varieties.”
“We export into South America, we export to Africa, we export into Canada,” Scott said about their seed potato business. “The majority of our seed goes on the West Coast, the Bakersfield, California area. We’ve been shipping more and more into Idaho, eastern Washington and then our local neighbors here in Skagit County.”
Over the past five years they’ve seen their export seed market expand and Scott sees an opportunity to continue to grow their export market. Just the same it’s a market that they approach carefully.
“A lot can happen in a container in 40, 50 days,” he said. “That’s a little nerve wracking. It’s easy getting them on a boat, but you got to get them in at the other end.”
Scott said that in 1987 his father started a tissue culture lab that his stepmother, Marlys, manages.
“My dad wanted a clean source of seed and he wasn’t finding it elsewhere, so he decided to develop his own system,” Scott said. “We can clean up the varieties ourselves and it also enables us to bring on new varieties that other people don’t have.”
According to Scott there are two major challenges that they currently face in this area: potato virus Y (PVY) and the cost of land.
“We’re always battling it,” he said of PVY. “We’ve increased all our insecticides, our rotations, the way we spray our schedules. We feel we’ve cleaned it up very well and taken control of it.”
Land prices and land rents have skyrocketed in the area, Scott said.
“This is a heavily populated production area. A majority of U.S. raspberries are grown in our area, so land prices are driven up,” he said.
With the additional pressure from raspberry and blueberry growers and dairy farmers, land prices vary from $25,000 to $30,000 an acre and land rent is averaging between $500 to $600 an acre, he said.
Despite selling the farm to Scott and Melissa, Dick Bedlington continues to keep involved in the marketing of seed potatoes.
“I really enjoy a personal relationship with the growers,” he said. “Over 45 years I’ve become very good friends with a lot of them. I believe in selling seed directly to farmers. Once in a while I’ll sell to a broker but 95 percent of the time I sell directly to farmers.”
He enjoys a hands-on approach and tries to understand and meet the needs of the grower.
“It’s a very tight-knit community,” he said of the potato industry. “We need each other to stay alive in this business.”
Watching his children, son-in-law and wife run the various parts of the farm is a source of pride these days for Dick Bedlington.
“It’s a true family farm,” he said. “We work together every day. We share the good stuff and the bad stuff. If we have a failure on something, we learn from it.”