Big Sky Communicator
United States Potato Board (USPB) member Steve Cottom is a fourth generation seed grower and has been involved with Montana seed potato production for over 40 years. Great-great grandparents George and Elizabeth Cottom originally settled in Idaho’s Lemhi Valley in 1881. Their son, Morse Cottom, started raising potatoes in the 1920s and earned a reputation for quality seed potato production. Morse died of tick fever in 1930, and his son Philip took over the operation.
In the early 1930s, in search of better soil, Philip, along with Phillip’s father-in-law, William Irvine, moved their farming operations over the mountains to Montana’s Beaverhead Valley, near Dillon.
Today Steve, his wife Cathy and his brother Dave, oversee the farming operations. Cottom Seed produces about 500 acres of seed potatoes, specializing in Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet, Norkotah Russet and Rio Grande Russet varieties.
Because of the farm’s remote locale, staying connected and informed within the potato industry is a priority for Cottom.
The USPB creates connections with the industry,” Cottom said. “I’ve only been a board member for a few years, and I’ve only been to a few meetings, but this exposure has increased my awareness of just how involved the USPB really is in a lot of facets within the industry.”
“With online tools and websites, the USPB works very hard maintaining industry connections. This is how I stay informed. I like receiving USPB e-mail newsletters and receiving the weekly potato recipe from www. potatogoodness.com. It’s fantastic for people to receive all of those potato menu ideas.
“As Montana’s sole USPB representative, it also makes my job easier to inform fellow growers about the board and what it provides to them. By forwarding potato recipes to my neighbors, I can start up dialogues with them about the USPB. It’s a nice, easy way to have a conversation about the industry and my involvement without being too pushy.”
Cottom said the 2012 season started with a warm, dry spring resulting in an early start to planting.
“We didn’t have any rain delays and the crop was planted in good time,” Cottom said.
The outlook looked good following the early planting. However, severe weather in June with high temperatures and strong winds combined to create environmental stress that eventually impacted tuber counts, particularly the Russet Burbanks.
“Our tuber counts were about half of normal for the russets,” Cottom said. “The others were okay but a little bit off from normal. It seemed to be an issue with everybody in southwest Montana.”
Cottom said that this year’s crop is down in tonnage compared to the 2011 crop. He said that the crop won’t grade as well due to increased oversize because of the small sets.
“Harvest went good. The quality looks good. We were finished by the third of October which is about as early as we’ve ever finished,” Cottom said, “just perfect weather, very little wind, which is unusual for us.
“We’ve always produced russeted varieties. It’s what our business has been, and it’s what our customers demand,” Cottom said, “Rangers for processing, Norkotahs for fresh production and Russet Burbank as a dual purpose potato for fresh and processing.
“The Rio Grande Russet is a real pretty variety in our area. The Colorado industry grows a fair amount of them, and they have a real white flesh, nearly perfect shape and not much issue with hollow heart or brown spot. They cook up nice, and we like to eat them,” Cottom said.
Cathy agrees with her husband’s culinary assessment.
“Rio Grandes are my favorite,” she said. “They are very forgiving and work in most recipes. They hold together well in soups and stews. For us, they are our picture perfect potato.”
Cottom serves on the board of the Montana Potato Improvement Association (MPIA). In 2011 he was the MPIA president, an organization his grandfather, Philip, helped establish.
“On the USPB, I’m appreciative to be a seed grower working among a lot of commercial growers,” Cottom said. “I have an opportunity to represent the seed producer’s perspective, and help the commercial growers I associate with understand the challenges we face with variety The entire methodology of who should be developing these varieties and determining their usefulness needs to change.”
When a promising variety is selected, the seed sector then grows it out, cleans it up, does virus and disease testing in the field, investing a lot of time, money and effort to produce G2 or G3 seed stock deliverable to the grower.
By the time this seed is made available, for whatever reason or issue that has risen during this long process, the industry may no longer want it. This, after the seed sector has already spent tens of thousands of dollars in its development.
“Everybody is looking for that magic bullet variety,” Cottom said. “The variety selection process needs to initiate from the other direction. In my mind, it really does need to come from the consumer. This is where the USPB can be of some help.”
Cottom effectively represents the interests of the Montana seed industry on the USPB. He gives an update on USPB activities and resources each November at the MPIA annual seed seminar.
“I just want everyone to know these resources are available for all,” he said. “Effective communication is important for any organization, and especially for the USPB. They really are one common voice for the industry, increasing the demand and consumption of potatoes.”