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Columbia Basin family farm looks to the third generation

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It's a period of transition for the Morris brothers and their Columbian Basin farm, Morris Irrigated Farms, based in Quincy, Wash. As one brother retires from the farming operation, a son returns to join his father and uncle and continue the farming venture into a third generation.

Oldest brother Steve retired from the farming operation at the end of 2009 and Paul and John continue the operation with Paul's 27 year-old son, Trevor, who returned home to take Steve's place and potentially take the Morris farming tradition into a third generation.

The Morris' parents, John and Shirley, began farming in the Columbia Basin in 1953, moving from Marysville when the Columbia Basin irrigation district opened.

On a warm September, afternoon Paul Morris took time from overseeing the potato harvest to discuss the family operation.

Morris is a former chairman of the Washington State Potato Commission and served three three-year terms on the commission.

"We farm 1,200 acres of various irrigated crops, potatoes being one of them. Alfalfa, hay sweet corn, processing peas and irrigated wheat," Paul said.

He started farming in 1976. His brother Steve quit his job as a chemical engineer in Pasadena, Calif., and joined a year later, and their younger brother, John, became a partner in 1980 after graduating from Washington State University.

Until 2007 they raised some fresh potatoes along with the process potatoes contracted with ConAgra.

"In the past we've raised some fresh potatoes but two years ago we made the decision to do all process," Paul said.

The price they were getting for fresh potatoes was not keeping up with the cost of production, he said.

"Storage was a big item," he said.

With an average cost of $20 per ton to store fresh potatoes plus the transportation cost, and then waiting until March or April to see a return on their investment, the lack of cash flow along with a poor return on their investment prompted the Morris' to go to an all process operation.

They normally grow between 240 acres and 300 acres of Umatilla Russets for ConAgra in Quincy, but in 2009 their acreage was cut by more than half to 87 acres.

Paul said that they didn't sign a contract with ConAgra in the fall of 2008 but they had made plans to do everything as had been done in previous years, fumigating and fertilizing two circles, but then their acreage was cut. Fortunately, they were able to sub-lease to another farmer who grows chip potatoes and were able to cover the expenses they had laid out.

To make up for the lost revenue they put in an extra circle of sweet corn and a circle of dark northern spring commercial wheat.

"It's a big hit for us in our revenue because potatoes normally make up about half to 60 percent of our total income and this year we're looking at about a third of our income coming from potatoes," Paul said.

He said they did a little better on their return this season in spite of fewer acres because of the good yields. He also said that they were wise not to plant any open potatoes. By limiting themselves to the reduced acreage they'll be able to weather a poor marketing year and be able to rebound in the coming years.

Morris held out hope for the 2010 season that they would be planting more potatoes but said that they were contracted to plant at least the same amount of acres in 2010 that they planted in 2009 but he was still waiting for contracts to be announced as of late January.

"I'm thinking that ConAgra here in Quincy is going to be looking to get back to their contract growers," Paul said.

ConAgra has had to bring potatoes up from down south to supply their plant, he said.

"I'm sure it's nothing they like to do or wanted to do. I think when they realize, their transportation costs in hauling spuds up here, the extra cost in raw product that they'll be back to contract spuds," Paul said.

Looking at the 2010 season he sees a market that may not recover for another year.

"I think the potato industry has been hit hard by the recession and until we get our markets out of the recession we still have too much supply for the markets," he said. "I think we're a year away from turning around to more profitable levels."

Growing for the process market has meant developing the documentation process for Good Agricultural Practices for Morris Irrigated Farms and Paul is the one doing the necessary paper work.

"It's being driven by the fast food companies and they're asking ConAgra to comply with it. To give themselves a selling advantage over their partners they were the first ones started complying with the GAP rules," he said.

Some of the requirements are a little burdensome and many of the regulations they were already incorpoated in the farm's daily practice.

"Having a port-a-potty with a hand washing station, we've always done that. Training workers, as far as hygiene, not eating in the field, keeping the garbage of the digger, we've pretty much demanded our people do that," he said.

Two of the more disturbing trends Morris has witnessed since he started growing potatoes in 1976 has been the ongoing consolidation of farms and the development of joint venture operations.

He estimates that there were 450 growers in Washington in 1976 and there are now about 170.

"It's nothing for a farm to have 6,000 to 10,000 acres and they're doing joint ventures now with processors and that's someting that I don't like. It's a terrible trend for the industry," he said.

It's a situation that Paul likens to the farmer becoming a hired hand for the processor.

He perks up though when he discusses bringing his son Trevor into the farming operation.

"I would say it's given me a renewed purpose. I'll be exciting to watch him learn the things I learned 30 years ago," he said.

Paul envisions working with his son for the next for the next five years and then handing over the books to him and being there for "moral support."

"I'll give the phone numbers in my book to him so that he can make the contacts, he can take care of all the big details and I'll be the consultant," he said, with a smile creasing his sun-burnt face.

Originally posted Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010

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