Building on a Legacy
News about the Grand Coulee Dam in eastern Washington, which was central to formation of the Columbia Basin Project, traveled across the country following the end of World War II.
In 1950, Rex Calloway’s grandfather, Roy Calloway, made a solo trip from Oklahoma to visit family there and investigate the project. One of his relations, a World War II veteran, had successfully drawn 80 acres on the project, and was looking forward to the bright prospect of farming irrigated land.
That promise of liquid gold was convincing enough for Roy to make a life-changing decision. In 1951, He bought 160 acres on Babcock Ridge, sold everything in Oklahoma and relocated his family to Quincy, Washington.
My grandpa was almost 60 years old at that time and had a lot of foresight in making such a bold decision,” Calloway said. “He knew the value of water, but as an Oklahoma dry-land wheat farmer and cattleman, he was also foreign to irrigation and water issues.
“Those were difficult times, he said. “The average annual rainfall in the Columbia Basin is basically 6 to 8 inches. Water is what brought all of the people to settle in eastern Washington. Most families were transplants from Oklahoma, Kansas, Utah and Oregon.”
The Calloway family worked hard that first year building a home and clearing ground in time for the first irrigation water delivered the following spring. Wheat, beans and corn were the first crops they grew and harvested.
At the time of the move to Quincy, Rex Calloway’s father Damon was 19 years old. He helped on the farm, worked with his brother-in-law Carl and worked in town for fertilizer and seed stores. When Calloway’s uncle David started farming, the family bought another 80 acres.
“My dad married in 1964, and that’s when he got our first contract with Lamb Weston. We farmed our first potatoes on 30-40 acres without any storages,” Calloway said. “We’ve been growing potatoes ever since for processing. We built our first storage in 1968, and another one in 1974, and continued increasing our acres with Lamb Weston.
“McCain Foods came to Othello, Washington, in the late 1980s, and we were one of the first seven original growers to sign up for their contracts. We are still McCain growers today and we grow Russet Burbank and Umatilla Russets.”
Calloway grew up in Quincy and graduated high school in 1977. Growing up, he did all kinds of fieldwork. He remembers the farm transforming from siphon tubes to pivots. He also remembers how seed potatoes would come in burlap sacks, which were dumped into the hoppers on planters.
“My grandpa lived until 1992 and my grandma passed in 1998,” Calloway said. “Together, they saw a lot of changes and project developments from the very beginning of the Columbia Basin. They saw their children and family become successful resulting from their earlier decision to leave Oklahoma.”
Calloway attended Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman. He wanted to stay in agriculture, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue farming at home. He had always worked for his dad on the farm, but he had a desire to try something else. So when Damon lined up a summer job for his son with their seed potato farmer in Kalispell, Montana, he jumped at the opportunity.
“This was a great experience and opportunity that I had during my sophomore and junior years of college,” Calloway said. “I did all kinds of jobs and learned the seed side of the potato business, working in greenhouses and discovering the intricacies of meristem seed cultures and potatoes.”
Calloway graduated in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in plant science from Washington State University, where he also studied agronomy, cereal grains and vegetable production. Monsanto hired him as an intern and he received training in St. Louis. He then transferred to Willmar, Minnesota, where he gained a solid agribusiness perspective working for two years as a field representative.
“Then, one day my dad called and told me a neighboring 200-acre farm was up for sale,” Calloway said. “He asked me about my future plans and intentions. I went home for a visit and made my decision to return to the farm. My dad helped me buy that farm and I started farming for myself in 1985.
“We grew fresh vegetables, and that’s how I met my wife, Melva. She was a field representative for Simplot’s Columbia Basin fresh vegetable company. We dated for a few years and got married in 1995.”
After getting married, starting a family and getting established, Calloway was encouraged by Melva and Damon to get involved with the Washington State Potato Commission (WSPC). He was elected to serve as a commissioner and served on various committees. In 2010, he was asked to represent the Washington industry as a member on the U.S. Potato Board. He is now completing his fifth year, in his second three-year term. After two years on the Northwest Caucus, he was elected as an Administrative Committee member, serving on the International Marketing Committee.
In 2010, Calloway was a member of the Potato Industry Leadership Institute (PILI), and was subsequently elected by his peers to serve the 2011 PILI class as its Grower Leader.
PILI is an eight-day “immersion-like” program providing an overview of the potato industry’s challenges and issues. It’s a joint venture of the National Potato Council (NPC) and the USPB and is sponsored by Syngenta.
“Serving on the USPB has been a great experience, one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed,” Calloway said. “I appreciate what the USPB does and how it directly benefits me on my own farm.”
Calloway has witnessed what USPB does to help move potatoes through with marketing program initiatives.
“The USPB is a tremendous organization that works,” he said. “Growers give guidance, govern the USPB’s direction and are empowered in their decision making, thanks in part to the expertise and dedication of the USPB staff.”
“It’s great to be part of a cohesive industry. The USPB and NPC, along with state organizations, work seamlessly in resolving issues. I see the value of the USPB working with other organizations to improve markets. The working relationship of USPB, NPC, state organizations and growers is commendable. With everybody coming together and getting involved, it’s fun to see the successes. This kind of work would not happen without people pulling in the right direction.”
— David Fairbourn, Spudman correspondent