The Third Pillar
For a guy who claims he didn’t know anything about growing potatoes 31 years ago, Milt Carter proved to be a quick learner.
It was in 1985 in Watertown, South Dakota, that he planted his first potato crop. Never having grown potatoes previously, he sought out advice from a couple of experienced potato growers, his friends the Spevak brothers, Randy and Brad.
“I didn’t know anything about growing potatoes, and since he (Randy) was a friend of mine I asked him if he could help me out that first year in 1985,” Carter said. “We worked together kind of informally that year, he helped me plant and harvest the potatoes and then we decided to form CSS the next year.”
From this simple beginning, CSS Farms has grown to 15 locations across nine states, growing process, chip, fresh and seed potatoes on more than 10,000 acres – including more than 1,000 acres of Simplot’s bioengineered Innate seed potatoes in 2016.
Brad Spevak left the company in the early ’90s, and Randy Spevak retired three years ago as co-managing partner. Today, Carter is the CEO.
Like so many distant memories, Randy Spevak remembers Carter’s introduction to growing potatoes just a little differently.
“That’s kind of true, except we didn’t really have any experience,” he said.“Our father was a potato farmer and he had a pretty good understanding about growing potatoes, but we (Randy and his brother) were never involved in the business.
“I will say this,” Spevak said, “Milt’s an incredibly quick study and I would say that of all the people I know in the potato business, he knows more about growing potatoes than anybody that I’ve ever met, and that would include agronomists. That’s really his bailiwick, understanding how to grow potatoes.”
CSS first started growing chip potatoes in 1987. In 1993, it expanded its operation to Kearney, Nebraska, to grow stock for a Frito-Lay chip plant in Topeka, Kansas. During the 1990s, CSS continued its growth in Nebraska and into west Texas.
Spevak said that the expansion into Nebraska was prompted by one of Frito-Lay’s field people telling them that if CSS didn’t get better potato ground closer to the Frito-Lay plants they were going to lose their contracts.
“We quickly figured out that it would be better to grow those potatoes closer to where the chip manufacturing plants were in order to reduce freight,” Carter said. “So we started looking for locations, and ended up initially in Nebraska and subsequently in Texas.”
“The primary core of our business at CSS is growing chip potatoes, but a second big part of our business is growing table potatoes – basically specialty potatoes, the little baby potatoes,” Carter said. “We grow those under the name of ‘Tasteful Selections,’ and the facility for that is based in Bakersfield, California. We grows those all up and down the west coast of the United States and distribute them to all 50 states.”
In 2010, CSS formed a partnership with RPE out of Bancroft, Wisconsin, to market Tasteful Selections.
“The seed side is really the third major pillar of our business,” Carter said.
By the end of the 1990s, CSS was harvesting over 3 million cwt. in chip potatoes at the same time Carter and Spevak were increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of the seed they were getting.
“In the year 2000, we decided to develop our own seed farm in Cody, Nebraska,” Carter said. “Cody is in north-central Nebraska, a very isolated area. A long way from any other potato production, and yet reasonably close to our farms in Nebraska and Texas.”
Four years later, in 2004, CSS built a greenhouse facility in Colorado City, Colorado (see Spudman May/June 2016 issue). From there, CSS has developed a seed farm in Ione, Oregon, and with RPE purchased an early generation seed farm in Wisconsin.
As CSS developed its own closed-loop system, generating seed from greenhouse to early generation to commercial, it explored different planting strategies in the United States and Europe.
“We really had an open mind, and one of the things we found out was in Europe they basically pretty much believe in all whole seed,” Carter said. “Over time we’ve converted a big portion of our chip production to single drop or whole seed, and almost all the production for the ‘Tasteful Selections’ business is that form as well.”
He said the advantages to whole-seed planting include better uniformity, less seed-piece decay and disease issues.
CSS has also incorporated a bed system with narrower rows in order to maximize tuber population per acre.
“We’re at 18 inches between the rows,” Carter said. “That way we can spread out the potato plants. We end up with quicker ground cover, which helps us maximize yield because we’re capturing more of the solar energy that’s available.”
Narrower rows also help with weed control and controlling ground cover temperature, he said.
The expansion into Idaho in 2015 was predicated on two developments. CSS agreed to grow seed of Simplot’s new bioengineered Innate Russet Burbank, also called Cultivate, and there was a need for a separate location to grow the Cultivate seed.
“We believe in the technology,” Carter said of the decision to move to Idaho and grow Innate varieties. “Our primary interest is to support Simplot in the production of Innate seed potatoes. We decided jointly with Simplot that it was best to have a seed supply near where they were going to do the commercial production here in Idaho.”
CSS purchased Mountain West Select, a seed farm with acreage in southeast Idaho, in 2015. CSS is growing de-regulated Cultivate seed and recently de-regulated generation two Innate seed in northern Utah.
They are growing additional acres of Innate seed potatoes in Nebraska.
CSS is continuing to grow 520 acres of conventional seed under the Mountain West Select name in two Idaho locations, Juniper and Malad City.
The move into Innate production required not only a separate and distinct farm location but separate equipment, storage and personnel, Carter said. CSS has even taken the step of forming a separate company for its Innate seed production, calling it Trailblazer Seed.
“There’s no crossover with what we do with conventional and what we do with Innate,” he said.
“It’s ben a significant investment, but like I said, we believe in the technology,” Carter said. “We believe that will be the wave of the future, eventually.”