Under the Tetons’ Shadow
With the jagged Grand Teton mountains rising in the distance on a brisk October morning, trucks laden with freshly dug certified seed potatoes arrived at the Parkinson Seed Farm’s cellars in eastern Idaho.
It’s hard to believe all this started with only 90 acres of potatoes, back when I was a senior in high school,” said Dirk Parkinson, 50, of his family’s multi-generational enterprise east of St. Anthony, Idaho.
His outstretched arms seemed to encompass the farm’s office headquarters with his family’s home on the second floor, lines of seasonal employees sorting spuds and the cellars.
For the past six years, Parkinson and his three oldest sons have grown 3,000 acres of seed potatoes for more than 60 clients in the United States and abroad. They cultivate more than a dozen varieties.
“Thankfully, we had a typical harvest, with the weather cooperating,” Parkinson said.
As potatoes were unloaded, employees sized them, with those 8 ounces or smaller sorted out for seed and the larger ones destined for the fresh market.
“Our smallest potatoes are under contract for hash browns,” Parkinson said. “There’s nothing better than a double serving at a meal.”
During harvest, the Parkinsons’ 10 children, ranging in age from 14 to 30, help in whatever way they can.
“Our farm is a wonderful, beautiful place,” said his wife Robyn. “We’re grateful to be here and to have the opportunity for each one of us to do our part.”
Parkinson relies on his sons Jake, 30, Josh, 29, and Jud, 24, and son-in-law Athan Harrigfeld, 26, to help him manage the expansive farm.
Jake oversees customer service, shipping and storage. Josh supervises production and shop repairs. Jud manages their farm in Downey, while Athan runs the farm near Salmon.
“We needed some fresh ground to keep our seed stock disease-free,” Parkinson said, referring to their two new farms. In 2014, he obtained 150 acres in an isolated valley near Salmon, 170 miles to the northwest, and 250 acres near Downey, 130 miles to the south of St. Anthony.
Once a small family operation run by Parkinson and his dad, the seed farm has flourished. The business has 12 full-time employees, about 90 to 100 seasonal workers in the fall and 60 to 70 in spring.
“If you’re not innovating or diversifying in this business, you’re stagnating,” Parkinson said.
For his commitment to the industry and innovations, he was named the 2011 Idaho Crop Improvement Association Seed Grower of the Year.
“I love everything about this, from setting up the equipment, planting and finally harvesting. I’ve even dreamed about potatoes,” he said.
Parkinson thinks his late father, Bob, would be impressed to see how the business has expanded.
“Some of our varieties are growing in Brazil, Nicaragua, Russia, Congo, Thailand and Algeria,” Parkinson said.
After the harvest was done, he jetted to Algeria in November for a couple of weeks to consult with growers and ag officials there.
Parkinson travels internationally as president of USeed, a cooperative of seed potato growers striving to introduce quality crops worldwide.
“It’s a lengthy process to pick the varieties best suited for a country,” he said.
Their clients have numerous choices, including Russet Burbank, Ranger, Russet Norkotah, Cal Whites, Atlantics and Dark Red Norland, along with various combinations of potatoes with red or yellow skin and flesh.
“If one of our customers wants to try a variety we don’t have, we’ll try to find it,” Jake Parkinson said.
The Parkinsons cultivate lasting partnerships with their clients.
“The first customer we ever had, Mike Clawson, is still with us,” Parkinson said.
Clawson has grown the Parkinsons’ Russet Burbank, Norkotah and Cal Whites at his farm 60 miles to the south near Firth.
“They do a good job with first-generation seed, and it’s always grown well for me,” Clawson said. “They’re easy to work with, and address issues that might come up. I get an early generation from Dirk.”
The Parkinsons also offer customized cutting.
“We cut seed a little in advance, so our customers’ trucks can be loaded quickly,” Jake said. “During the growing season, we arrange pick-up, delivery or custom hauling depending on a customer’s needs.”
Once mainly wheat farmers, the Parkinsons began growing potatoes in 1982 with a modest 90-acre field.
“Dad wanted some diversification because my grandpa Keith had been growing dryland wheat here since 1937,” Parkinson said. “We still raise about 4,000 acres of hard red and hard white wheat.”
Encouraged by the potato market and customers’ comments, Bob expanded to 360 acres within two years. By then, Parkinson had attended a nearby college for a year and knew he wanted to farm the rest of his life.
“After all these years and everything we’ve been through, there’s still nothing I’d rather do,” he said.
They soon realized Idaho’s frigid, isolated valleys with silt-loam soil were ideal for growing seed potatoes.
“Our subzero winter temperatures kill volunteers, and mild heat during summer won’t stunt growth,” Parkinson said. “The isolation in some valleys is great for growing disease-free stock.”
Eventually, seed potatoes defined the family farm, so Bob named the business Parkinson Seed Farm in 1996. That same year, he died while piloting his plane from their farm 130 miles to the west, where Parkinson’s brother Doug was growing foundation seed stock in the remote Pahsimeroi Valley.
“I was 31 when he died,” Parkinson said. “It was scary, but we made it through.”
At times, he reminded himself of a motto Robyn often relied on while raising their children.
“Whatever happens, don’t panic. Just deal with a situation the best you can.”
Challenges of marketing, disease
“There are so many issues we face dealing with marketing and disease,” said Parkinson, who is involved with several industry organizations.
In addition to leading USeed, Parkinson is also a member of the U.S. Potato Board’s administrative committee focusing on international marketing. He also serves on the Idaho Crop Improvement Association’s board. He represents growers in his district for the United Seed Potato Growers of Idaho. He is a past board member of the Potato Variety Management Institute, an organization of growers based in the Northwest who promote new varieties.
“It’s challenging and gratifying to continue developing export markets,” he said.
The farm’s director of research and development, John Hoggan, works on increasing quality and disease resistance of some common varieties. He is also developing varieties for export markets.
“He’s been instrumental in the success of some varieties we’re working with and toward,” Parkinson said.
While he continues to modernize the farm, Parkinson appreciates his heritage.
“We keep Grandpa’s house in good shape, as a way to pay tribute to him for laying the foundation for the farm,” Parkinson said. “Before he died, he’d sometimes ride along in a tractor with one of us and shake his head in amazement at all the technological changes.”
With continued advancements, Parkinson foresees the seed farm’s future being as solid as the distant Tetons, a symbol on their company logo.
“Out of our 15 grandkids, I’m sure a few will want to keep the business going and growing,” he said.