Band of Brothers
Iotts have been farming in Michigan for over 100 years, but how they ended up in Michigan is a tale with historical antecedents.
As Dennis Iott tells the tale, his French Catholic Acadian ancestors had originally settled in New Brunswick, Canada.
In 1745, Great Britain threatened to expel Acadians from the Canadian Maritime provinces unless they pledged allegiance to the King of England, which they refused to do.
During the French and Indian War, between 1754 and 1763, many Acadians were expelled by the British from the provinces and deported south to the 13 colonies. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow memorialized the forced deportation in his poem Evangeline. “
Dennis isn’t sure how his family finally ended up in southeastern Michigan, but he suspects that they followed a water route that eventually brought them to Monroe County, where they started farming in the late 19th or early 20th century.
Today, Dennis, 59, and his brother Greg, 48, oversee the Iott seed farms in Kalkaska, 250 miles north of the original family farm in Monroe County.
Brothers working together is something of an Iott farm tradition.
During the mid-1950s, Ralph Iott, Dennis and Greg’s father, and his brother, Jim, worked together on the family farm in Monroe County. They grew vegetables and canning tomatoes. In the early 1960s they added chipping potatoes to their crop rotation and management.
In 1974, with farmland in Monroe County becoming scarce, Ralph and Jim bought 500 acres up in Kalkaska. From 1974 to 1978, Ralph would travel the 250 miles to Kalkaska to oversee planting and harvesting. During that time, Dennis and some of his cousins and friends would spend their summers working on the Kalkaska farm.
In 1978, Ralph and his family moved to Kalkaska and took over the farming operation full time, leaving Jim the original farm in Monroe County.
In 1981, Dennis and his wife, Dawn, moved to Kalkaska to work with his father. They have a son, Jesse, and two daughters, Alice and Natalie, and three grandchildren.
In 1992, after working in the construction business for a few years, Greg joined his father and brother on the farm. He and his wife Bonnie have a daughter, Angela, and a step-daughter, Alecia.
Following the move to Kalkaska, the Iotts grew seed for chip varieties along with processing potatoes for two Michigan fry plants. However, when the last fry plant closed in 1997, they decided the time was right to become a full-time seed operation.
To accommodate the transition, they had to enlarge their storage capacity. In 1998 they built a shed that would hold 60,000 cwt. Since that time they’ve increased their storage capacity three times, with the most recent expansion in 2013. Today, Iott Seed Farm can store 174,000 cwt. on site.
“Michigan was becoming a bigger player in the chip industry, and the seed opportunity kind of happened at the same time,” Greg said.
Today they farm 1,500 acres, with 500 acres of potatoes on a three-year rotation with wheat, rye and organic matter.
Most of their seed goes to Michigan chip growers, with the occasional load going out of state if there’s a shortage, Dennis said.
“We grow all chip varieties,” Dennis said. “Snowdens, Manistees, Lamokas and three or four Frito-Lay varieties.”
The two brothers enjoy working together and said that part of their success on the farm is due to their complementary skills.
“We’re kind of total opposites, in a lot of ways,” Greg said. “He’s always taking care of the office, the administration stuff. That’s not my thing. I’m more hands on.”
Dennis agrees with his younger brother’s assessment.
“We both tend to do different things,” he said. “We stay out of each other’s way and it works quite well. I guess you would say I’m the business manager. The office work, the sales, the accounting, banking, those kinds of things.”
He’s not always in the office, though. In the fall, you’ll find Dennis running the harvester while Greg takes care of storage.
When they’re not farming or meeting with seed customers, Greg and Dennis are active participants in Michigan’s potato industry. Greg is chairman of the Michigan Seed Potato Association (MSPA) and Dennis is president of Potato Growers of Michigan.
“It’s a very dynamic, bright bunch of people in Michigan that we enjoy being around and doing things with,” Dennis said.
Greg said that he enjoys the interaction with other growers in MSPA, and helping to guide industry policy in a positive direction.
Looking to the future, the brothers brought in their nephew, Bryan Fischer, in 2012, as the beginning of a succession plan.
“We’re training Bryan to do my job,” Dennis said. “Because I’m ahead of Greg as far as when I’m going to step away, a little bit.”
Greg can sense that his brother may want to reduce his workload, but he also knows that he’s still going to be part of the operation.
“He’s starting to get that look in his eyes, where there’s some things he’d like to do that he’s never had time to do,” Greg said. “I don’t see him just pulling up stakes and leaving. If you love this enough to do it in the first place, there’s not much chance you’re just going to walk away from it.”