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Farming Tradition Continues For Van Orden Family

There are more than 50 years of potato-growing history in the Van Orden family of Bingham County, Idaho. Michael, Gaylen and LeRoy Van Orden are working to continue that tradition, with more than 1,500 acres of potatoes, 650 acres of sugar beets and 2,900 acres of wheat.

LeRoy and Gaylen, the older Van Orden brothers, started farming with their father in 1974. The youngest brother, Michael, returned to the farm in 1981 after attending Brigham Young University and going to work for the Federal Reserve.

“I missed it; it’s just a good life,” Michael said. “I enjoy the aspects of working on the farm.”

The three brothers have been farming as a partnership since they started working together in ’81. And though there have been times when working with family has been difficult, the three have worked well together, with open communication.

LeRoy is the senior partner, Gaylen oversees equipment and farms on the west side of the farm, and Michael farms everything on the east side of the farm.

To keep the communication open, the brothers meet with each other fairly regularly. And before they begin each farming year, they sit down together and write a detailed plan on what will be done each season.

“Everyone’s real clear on what we need to do,” Michael said. “We all approach it the same way and work for the common good.”

Besides communication, Michael said flexibility is the key to good familial working relationships.

All of the brothers have sons who worked on the farm at one time or another, but all went on to college and are working in other jobs right now, Michael said.

Michael’s son, Jeff, is majoring in agribusiness at Brigham Young University.

“We’re just going to have to see what the future brings for him, but he’s got other opportunities as well,” Michael said. “There’s good opportunities here on this farm, but if you get an education – and that’s what we’ve emphasized to all the children in all three families – you can get a skill and then you can make a good decision on what’s best.”

Labor

Finding good, quality farm workers can be one of the biggest challenges for potato growers. The Van Ordens are no different. They have families who have been coming back to work for them for many generations, so they don’t need to advertise. Typically, they have a pretty steady labor force, but this past year, they had issues finding people to drive trucks for them.

“I can see in the future that continuing to be a concern,” Michael said.

With all of the labor reform bills, Michael said growers might get some help. But, it’s going to depend on the final bill. There are a lot of issues to address before any bill gets signed.

“Generally, there’s two or three items in the bill that may assist us in the long run and others may be to our detriment,” Michael said. “It sure appears the country’s somewhat divided on this issue.”

Industry Concerns

There are other issues facing the potato industry that have growers concerned. One of them is chemicals.

“Ultimately, our goal is the same as consumers: we want to produce safe food,” Michael said. “When you take a chemical out of our program, that’s one less tool we have to work with.”

Michael said the price of fuel will become a bigger player in the industry. With the prices of nearly everything rising, eventually something will have to be cut back – possibly causing growers to forgo quality.

“It will continually tighten margins, and we need to continually look at ways to be more efficient,” Michael said. “Quality is everything, and we can’t ever sacrifice the quality. It puts you in a real difficult situation.”

Another issue Michael said the industry would need to monitor in the future is increasing imports.

Looking Forward

The marketing environment the last few years has been difficult for potato growers, the Van Ordens not excluded, but Michael said they’re seeing a turnaround that is making them cautiously optimistic about the future.

“I think we continually need to work together to recognize changes in demand, so that the supply will always be to the level that will maintain a profit for everyone involved,” Michael said.

With demand moving toward convenience and value-added, Michael said growers would continue to offer products such as easy bakers and fresh-cut options.

“There is some real potential there; it’s a good market,” he said.

Michael also sees expanding international markets as a promising direction for the U.S. potato industry.

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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