Innovation Helps Moss Farms Flourish
Dan Moss and his son, Ryan, point out their farm’s latest invention as they watch their potatoes roll along a conveyor at a cellar in southeastern Idaho during fall harvest. A high-powered fan blows away vines and other debris from the Ranger Russets that Simplot Foods will make into french fries.
“We call it the Air Knife,” said Dan, chief executive officer of Moss Farms.
The 14,000-acre family business, vertically integrated from seed farm to packing plant, is based in Rupert along the fertile Snake River Plain. The Mosses raise about 5,500 acres of potatoes, rotating the crop with sugarbeets and wheat in four management areas that span 100 miles in several counties.
“One of our employees, Corey Webb, likes to design and fabricate new equipment to help us do a better job,” Dan said.
Ryan, chief operations officer, said the Air Knife intrigued a local potato equipment manufacturer, Double L, so it built one.
“Will it be a machine of the future for growers?” said Ryan, smiling. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
Whatever the issue, Dan approaches it with an innovative attitude, whether it is new equipment, international trade negotiations, test plots with new cultivars or chemicals, software to remotely control conditions in warehouses, energy efficient motors in fans and irrigation pumps or employee benefits.
“We’ve always been willing to try new ideas that might have long-term benefits for us and our industry,” said Dan, who has volunteered for leadership roles with several potato organizations and was recently appointed as a board member to Potatoes USA.
“There are so many issues affecting our business, it’s important to lead, be progressive and make sure our voices are heard whether we’re dealing with water rights or trade issues,” he said.
Since 2005, Dan has represented the potato industry on USDA’s Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee (APAC). He was an ideal appointment, having served as the National Potato Council’s vice president of trade and later its president. He is also a past chairman of the Idaho Potato Commission.
As an APAC member, Dan and others provide private-sector input to the U.S. Trade Representative concerning trade policies such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The broad trade agreement between the United States and 11 other countries was signed in February 2016 in New Zealand. These countries, which are mainly in the Asia-Pacific region, have two years to ratify TPP before it can be implemented.
“We need to protect U.S. interests for our growers,” said Dan, who receives daily emails about trade issues.
While the TPP would benefit the potato industry with reduced or eliminated tariffs in several countries, members of Congress have said certain provisions dealing with patent protection and food safety need to be revised before it can be ratified.
Dan points out what is at stake for potato farmers. In 2015, the United States exported more than $700 million of potatoes and potato products to the TPP region, according to USDA. TPP would eliminate tariffs on potatoes and potato products in Malaysia, Vietnam, New Zealand and Brunei. Tariffs in Japan, depending on the product, would be eliminated over six years.
Some of the farm’s potatoes are already shipped overseas through contracts with Simplot Foods and McCain Foods.
“Most of our crop stays in the U.S. and Canada with about half for processors, one-quarter for fresh and the remaining going to dehy,” Dan said.
For processors, they grow mainly Ranger Russet, Russet Burbank, Teton Russet and recently the Clearwater Russet. They pack mainly Russet Norkotah for restaurants, grocery stores and national foodservice companies.
“It’s our first year to store Clearwater Russet,” Ryan said of the variety known for its high solids, low sugar content and being suitable for fresh-pack or processing. “McDonald’s has just cleared Clearwater as an acceptable variety. They’re less susceptible to blight and will stay white longer in storage. We planted 150 acres and might grow more over time.”
The Mosses grow 500 to 600 acres of seed, “so we have control over quality,” Ryan said. “It also gives us flexibility in case processors change their needs.”
As potatoes grow, Ryan’s son, Devon does custom variable-rate chemical application because “we need to get things done on our timeframe,” Ryan said.
Innovations in cellars
As the potatoes move along the conveyor, they are misted with Resist 57 to kill bacteria, so they will store for uptoayear.
“Simplot designates us as last in their supply chain, so some of these potatoes won’t come out until August,” Ryan said. “We start digging in August and finish up by mid-October. This year, we had cool weather during harvest, which was nice. We have to finish by Halloween at the latest, so we can start harvesting beets and plant fall wheat.”
Inside the cellars about three years ago, new electrical panels, computer software and fans with energy efficient motors were installed. The new technology enables Ryan to remotely control temperature, humidity and other factors from a computer.
“Our cellars are monitored constantly,” he said. “If a fan quits, I’ll get a text.”
He checks a new scale that measures each cwt. of potatoes traveling along the conveyor.
“It helps us know the specific yield from each field,” Ryan said.
A weight watcher made by Mooij-Agro, a company from the Netherlands, represented by Double-L in the United States, monitors shrinkage in the cellars.
“It’s our third season of gathering data about how CO2 and humidity affect shrinkage,” Dan said.
After checking on work at the cellar, Dan and Ryan drop in at their nearby packing plant in Rupert. Eight trucks leave Arrowhead Potato daily, making deliveries that include the largest clients, national food distributors Sysco and Markon.
“We have one truck that leaves every day for Las Vegas, so a company can make fresh mashed potatoes for casinos’ buffets,” Dan said.
Inside the plant, he points out an electronic eye that detects potatoes that are misshapen, green or the wrong size. Rubber-coated rods kick the rejected potatoes to a bin where they are designated for dehydrated processors.
“Six years ago, it was one of the first in Idaho,” he said.
Along with being a trendsetter with equipment and technology, Dan has also been a pioneering employer. More than a decade ago, he began offering a 401K program to employees, from pipe movers to managers.
“I wanted to provide workers with financial help for their future retirement,” Dan said of 50 year-round workers on the farm and 40 full-time employees at Arrowhead. About 80 seasonal employees are hired for harvest.
As a token of Dan’s appreciation, each worker at Arrowhead is given a 5-pound bag of potatoes every Friday.
From the packing plant, the Mosses stroll across the street to their offices.
“You get to a point where you outgrow the kitchen table and home office,” Dan said.
Ten years ago, he hired Klade Williams as chief financial officer to deal with loans, human resources, employee benefits and labor rules.
“He plays a key role at Moss Ag,” Dan said.
Dan recalls how his wife, Jann, did payroll at the kitchen table when he first started farming in Idaho. In 1980, he grew corn, beans and alfalfa on 160 acres after moving from northern Utah because farmland there was being sold for subdivisions.
Dan, who grew up near Layton, always knew he wanted to raise crops like his dad. When he was 16, he signed his first commodities contract and grew 40 acres of sugarbeets on his first rented farm.
“Utah & Idaho Sugar Company offered contracts to encourage teenagers to become farmers,” Dan said.
As opportunities arose in the early ’90s, Dan bought more land with Ryan, helping him run the farm. Today, four farm managers oversee different regions of the expansive enterprise.
As for the future, Ryan’s sons Austin, 18, and Alex, 16, are following in their grandfather’s career path. They obtained contracts through FFA and local companies to raise potatoes and sugarbeets.
“We never know what the future holds, but right now Ryan’s three sons are as devoted to the farm as we are,” Dan said.