Living the Dream
There’s a slight chill in the September air as Tim Topliff begins another harvest day in Nevada’s pre- dawn darkness at R.D. Offut’s (RDO) Winnemucca Farm.
It’s 5 a.m., Monday, and Topliff, the RDO farm manager, has paperwork to review before he can meet with the farm staff and harvest workers under the lights by the scale house at the transload site to go over the day’s work schedule.
Between 5:30 and 6 a.m., workers begin to congregate near the scale shed for the morning meeting. The dawn’s quiet is broken with the intermittent sounds of trucks firing up for another day’s potato harvest in north-central Nevada.
With the slightest hint of the aurora’s roseate light bringing the Osgood Mountains in silhouette, the meeting begins. Topliff and his crew gather in a circle to check off how many field trucks they have today and how many big rigs are available to haul potatoes from the transload area to storage cellars, or the washing shed in Winnemucca for the trip to a Frito-Lay chip plant in California.
This year, Topliff ’s biggest harvest headache has been securing enough field trucks. The farm’s isolation from other harvest areas makes it difficult to recruit truckers, particularly when there is a shortage.
“We had one guy that was supposed to send three trucks and he decided to only send one,” he said. “So on a year when we’re already going to be short a few trucks, we just got shorter yet.”
After making sure all the workers at the transload area have the proper safety vests and truck drivers and equipment operators know what fields they’ll be working, the circle breaks up and another day’s harvest is underway.
Topliff oversees the operation of three RDO farms in the area: the main farm in Winnemucca; the seed farm, in Orovada, 55 miles north of Winnemucca; and a new farm that RDO broke ground in the early 2000s in Golconda, 15 miles east of Winnemucca.
Topliff started with RDO as the manager of the seed farm in Orovada in March 2013. He’s been the farm manager of the three farms since December 2015. Total farm acreage is about 15,000, with 2,000 acres in seed and process potatoes.
His love for farming began in Paul, Idaho, where his family had a small row crop farm, but they sold the farm when he was a child. He worked for area farms growing up and graduated from the University of Idaho with a major in agri- business and agricultural economics and a minor in crop sciences.
Following graduation, he worked for Potandon, in Idaho Falls, Idaho, for nine months. He then worked for Cargill for about two and a half years in Idaho Falls. While working for Cargill he earned a master’s degree in crop science from the University of Illinois, Champaign/Urbana. He then worked at the Idaho National Laboratory as a research agronomist on the biofuels program on a one-year contract.
He then went to work for Lamb Weston as an agronomist at the Tri- Cities in Washington state for two and a half years until RDO came calling in 2013.
“RDO came and asked me to come down to Nevada and farm for them,” Topliff said. “There was no question about it. All I ever wanted to do was farm.”
Topliff and his family moved to Orovada in the spring of 2013. This is his fourth season working for RDO.
It may be an RDO farm, but Topliff likes to think of it as a family farm and the workers are one family unit. The word “family” comes up frequently when Topliff discusses the workers and his farming philosophy.
“I try to run this like a family farm,” he said. “We all know each other, we all live close or next to each other, we all interact with each other on a daily basis, so life’s too short not to get along with your co-workers or employees.
“Everyone here’s like family,” he said. “Skinny (another full-time employee), his wife, Norma, is my secretary and office manager. She’s the brains of the operation. For the most part, everyone here is like family. There’s nothing that none of us won’t do for each other.”
He stops to introduce another worker.
“This is Mariano. He’s been my right- hand man ever since I came here,” Topliff said. “Mariano’s like family. My wife and his wife are good friends. Our kids play together.”
On the Winnemucca farm and the Golconda farm, all the potatoes are destined for the Frito-Lay plant in California. RDO practices a four-year rotation on the two farms. Orovada is solely a seed potato farm. They grow seed for both the Nevada operation and the La Grande, Oregon, seed farm. The G2 seed is on a four-year rotation and the G1 seed is on a six-year rotation.
“This farm here is a loamy silt,” he said of the main farm. “You get to the new farm and it’s all sand and then you go to Orovada, where we’re digging at now, it’s a heavy silt, somewhat of a silty clay, river bottom ground, but the next field that we move to, it’s actually a blow sand. We dig in so many different conditions across the three farms.”
Alfalfa is the primary rotation crop, with snap peas a secondary rotation. Most of the alfalfa goes to an RDO dairy in Boardman, Oregon. The price of wheat was so depressed that he ended up using it for cattle feed.
All three farms rely on well water and center-pivot irrigation. North-central Nevada is extremely dry, Topliff said.
“We’re a lot drier than southern Idaho. We went 120 plus days without a single drop of moisture this summer,” he said.
“Our number one constriction on this farm is water, just like it is across the rest of the west,” Topliff said. “Water is our most constraining limitation that we have to deal with every day. We manage it and we monitor it on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis.”
It all comes down to water management for Topliff. Every Monday morning, he gets the readings from the farm’s flow meters and sends the data to an engineering company and then gets his pumping total every week.
“We have a certain allotment that we’re allowed to pump,” he said. “I have to manage the crop by water a lot of times.”
Whether it’s a shortage of trucks or a shortage of water there’s challenges to be met every day, but Topliff seems to thrive in the environment.
“Just living the dream out here in the desert,” Topliff said as he scanned the hilled fields of dead potato vines spread as far as the eye can see. “I get to play in the dirt every day. How much better does it get than that?”