Learning by Necessity
Rob Davis is no stranger to challenges. He’s been tackling challenges since he first began working in agriculture.
From starting up his own large-scale potato operation to the 2013 chairmanship of the U.S. Potato Board (USPB), the 37-year old Davis has been fairly successful in meeting and defeating the challenges along life’s highway.
But it was the challenge of managing a potato crop following a serious accident involving the owner that first steered Davis towards the potato industry.
It was in 1999 when Davis first began working for Carl Noble. Noble, a major process grower in the region, was known as the Spud King at that time, Davis said.
Starting at the bottom rung of the company ladder, feeding cows and driving tractors, by 2003 Davis had moved up a rung or two. Now he was responsible for managing the water and looking after the rotations crops.
(I did) The wheat, the corn, the alfalfa, bluegrass seed and he (Noble) did all of the potatoes. He still oversaw everything that I did but I was the ‘make sure it all happens guy’,” Davis said of his responsibilities in 2003.
That all tragically changed one spring night when Noble was involved in a terrible car accident that left him blind in one eye and with limited vision in the other eye.
“He got into the accident and the next day I was the potato guy,” Davis said of his initiation into the potato industry. “I’d been around them, really didn’t know a lot about them. There was a lot of pressure put on me, just instantly the next day, because here’s a farm, an empire that this guy built.”
According to Davis, his introduction to potato agronomy was something of a baptism by fire.
“It was when we were cultivating in May. So there’s a lot of pressure to make sure everything was done right and I guarantee everything wasn’t done right because sometimes I didn’t know what I was doing but I had good teachers,” Davis said. “There was a field man from Lamb Weston that taught me a lot and an agronomist that they gave me access to that taught me a lot.”
Davis oversaw the farming operation from 2003 to 2005. It was an intense and steep learning curve at first.
“There was a lot of nights with no sleep,” Davis said. “We had potatoes from Pasco to Moses Lake. I needed to look at every field and make sure everything was right. A lot of times I would just go as long as I could, 9 or 10 at night sometimes 12 o’clock at night. This wouldn’t happen every day but there were plenty of times where I would pull into a pivot, sleep in my pickup and when I woke up at 2 or 3 or 4, I would go to the nearest quick stop and buy a Gatorade and the biggest coffee you could find. Anything to stay alive, I guess.”
In 2005 Noble decided that his physical impairments due to the accident were such that he was going to cut back his farming operation. That’s when Davis decided it was time to start his own farming operation, RHD, Inc.
“He gave me the opportunity to take over some of it. I planted the first crop in 2006,” Davis said. He said that Noble helped him with financing for the equipment that first year and in later years he would lease some of Noble’s land.
Davis’ family has been involved in the potato industry for three generations but not necessarily as potato farmers. His great-grandfather, Hugh, was a farmer near Fruitland, Idaho, where he grew hay, sugar beets and corn.
His grandfather, Robert, moved his family to Connell, Wash., where he worked as a maintenance supervisor at the Lamb Weston processing plant. Davis’ father, Scott, also worked for a time at the Connell plant before opening an automotive repair business.
Growing up in the agrarian-based community of Connell Davis developed an affinity for farming and desire to stay and raise a family.
“It’s like old times where everyone is a neighbor and if anyone needs a hand, the rest of the neighbors are not afraid of jumping in to help,” Davis said.
Today, he and his wife, Randi, are raising their four boys, Trey, 9, Jake, 8, Jack, 6, and Max, 5, in the same small-town environment they grew up in.
Davis went to Columbia Basin College, a community college in Pasco and earned an Associate of Arts general degree. He then studied at Washington State University where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in agricultural economics with a minor in accounting.
Like many young people, Davis developed his sense of self and a blueprint for his future while in college.
“I spent some time in the seat of a tractor, disking and plowing and planting,” Davis said. “College gave me the 10,000-foot view. No, I don’t want to be the one sitting behind the seat. I want to be the one hiring the guy sitting behind the seat. It just opened up the whole view as to these are the possibilities.”
While he was working towards his degree Davis continued to build a foundation to one day start his own farming operation.
Through timing, perseverance and lots of sweat equity, an opportunity presented itself to Davis.
“When I was a senior in college, I got my first crop share with a guy I worked for,” Davis said, explaining his first steps in a farming enterprise. “I worked for minimum wage and we shared the profit on one field.”
Following this experience he went to work for Noble in 1999.
Good timing always has a hand in any successful venture and Davis said that his timing couldn’t have been better when he started RHD in 2006 .
“I started at just about the right time because I started right when prices of commodities really escalated,” he said. “Hindsight says I don’t know if there could have been a better time to start.”
At the same time, with high commodity prices come high rent and more competition for ground Davis said.
“I don’t know that you will find steeper competition anywhere in the United States,” Davis said.
“The goal someday is to own your piece of land but at the same time the price of land is getting so expensive. It takes a lot of money to play in that game. Someday I’ll get there,” he said.
Despite the constant and competitive demand for farmland throughout the Columbia Basin, Davis said that he tries to follow the Golden Rule in his business relationships.
“We try to deal with folks the way we want to be treated,” Davis said. “Even in today’s society I do a lot of deals that are still a handshake. We don’t have anything on paper. If you just stick to morals and ethics, it goes a long ways.”
Davis exudes an air of self-confidence as he discusses the future of RHD, and the potential for the future.
“I’m a young guy and I don’t plan on stopping farming here in the next year or two or five or 10,” he said. “I’m the guy that’s going to pay you your rent check not only to you but to your kids when you’re not here. We’re here for the long term and you can count on us.”
These days, the future is looking bright for RHD. All potatoes, Shepodys, Ranger Russets, Russet Burbanks, Umatillas, Premier Russets, Alpine Russets and Alturas, are grown for the Lamb Weston plant in Connell.
His rotation crops include wheat, timothy hay, feed corn, sweet corn and fresh peas. Along with the farming operation he also has a trucking company, with 12 semi-tractors, that operates year round.
He’s a man who believes in leading by example but he also believes that you get more accomplished when you pull together as a team.
“I can’t do it alone,” Davis said. “I try to think of the whole operation as a team and everybody has their piece. Everybody has their cog in the wheel and it takes everybody to make the wheel turn. I try to get everybody to work together because if every employee works together we can accomplish a whole lot more.”
He brings a similar philosophy to his tenure as USPB chairman. Davis tends to use the first person plural pronoun when discussing issues facing the USPB and the potato industry.
At the top of is to-do-list is securing a new president and CEO for the USPB. Following that there’s the need to improve demand for fresh potatoes in the American diet.
“I think one of the things we need to do is to continue with the research and tell our story on the nutrition side,” Davis said. “Potatoes are good for you, they’re the number one source of potassium. We need to take that and run with it.”
Davis recognizes that the potato industry has to adapt to the demands of the 21st century American diet. He’s ready to lead that challenge in 2013.
“Our target audience is changing and our products haven’t changed with her,” Davis said. “We need to create new products that are fast, that are easy, that are convenient, they taste good and they’re nutritious. We need to find a way to get more potatoes in front of more people.”
It’s a challenge facing the entire potato industry. A challenge Rob Davis is willing to address in the coming year.