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Fertile delta provides grower with “world’s best” soil to grow specialty crops

The Skagit Valley in northwestern Washington is a fertile delta formed by the Skagit and Samish rivers. It was there in 1938 that then 22-year-old Norman Nelson began potato farming. The land, with its high organic matter content and cool, wet climate, was ideal for growing potatoes.

“We probably have some of the best soil in the world,” said Jerry Nelson, president of Norm Nelson Inc. and son of the founder.

In the mid-1940s, Norman Nelson bought an old packing shed and began packing his own product. He created the Double-N brand and logo, which the company still uses to this day. From its start, the company grew white potatoes. In the 1970s russets were added, but that lasted less than 10 years, while more acres were devoted to reds, yellows and the occasional purple variety.

Norman Nelson Inc. grew White Rose from 1938 until the mid-1990s, when it was phased out in exchange for White Cascade. When a red line was added, it was the Red LaSoda, but that’s been phased out and all the reds in the 2007 crop were Red Chieftans. The decision to go to the Red Chieftans was made because customers were looking for a bright red potato with shallower eyes, Jerry said.

Today, Jerry runs the company and his son works as farm manager. The farm operations have cut back slightly over the last few years so he can focus on growing potatoes the best he can, Jerry said. The crop rotation is four years in most fields, and all of the rotation crops grown – peas, wheat and forage grasses – were selected because they increase the quality of the potato crop.

“We pride ourselves in doing a good job. We’ve been at this a long time. We strive for quality. I take quality over volume. Everything we do is about potatoes. If it doesn’t work for potatoes, then we don’t do it,” Jerry said.

That has meant getting back into the dairy business, which Norman Nelson Inc. left in 1972. The dairy industry was thriving back then, so the farm worked with dairy farmers, who bought the grasses to feed their cows. But there have been fewer and fewer dairies in recent years, so Nelson invested in dairy cows to maintain his rotation without having to rely on other farmers. It was a big investment, not just on cows but on the infrastructure and having faith in the future of the dairy business – but grasses are a good fit in the rotation and he wanted to stay with what works, Jerry said.

“If you don’t maintain the soil, you’re mining it and losing that organic content that you need,” he said.

Potato production in the Skagit Valley area has increased over the years, and with the cost of inputs rising, a grower has to be good at what he does or he won’t make money, Nelson said. The amount of labor and equipment needed to prepare a field in the Skagit Valley is much higher than in drier climates. A field will undergo 15 to 16 passes before a planter ever goes through.

“Because of costs, this area is becoming more specialized,” Jerry said.

Water

The biggest issue facing growers in the Skagit Valley is the availability and use of water. Much of the land is close to sea level and near Puget Sound, a saltwater bay that empties to the Pacific Ocean. Salt intrusion into soil can make fields unfarmable. Growers commonly use 40- to 50-foot-deep wells, but those too can be affected by salt.

Even water farms aren’t using affects growing operations. Federal regulations have been put in place to protect Coho salmon in the rivers, and the regulations don’t allow the use of aerial spray applications of chemicals near the river. Jerry has had to replace aerial sprays with ground sprays.

“We’re living in different times now. We’re dealing with the Endangered Species Act. There’s been talk of putting buffers around farmland,” he said.

So far, those buffers haven’t been required, but farmers can voluntarily install buffers and get a payment from the government. There have been regulations implemented on ditches to prevent water runoff from getting into rivers. The water in the ditches is released by tidal gates, which have additional regulations on how they’re maintained and operated. Some ditches require annual cleaning because of the silting that takes place because of the gates, Jerry said.

When Skagit Valley growers talk about water, it’s usually what falls from the sky that they’re worried about. The area gets about 33 inches of rainfall a year, sometimes in the form of heavy rain. The Samish River floods during high rains, which could cause flooding in Nelson’s fields. The Skagit River is affected more by snowfall, so as the snow in the mountains melts, the water level rises.

“We figure on flooding almost every year on the Samish River,” Jerry said. “It really affects us personally.”

Flooding can destroy the season, he said. One year, floods covered the fields in mid-October, and not another potato came out of the ground that year. Freezing is another issue for growers in the area. Temperatures can fall below freezing in November and December.

Brand Lines

The Double-N brand Norman Nelson created in the 1940s remains the company’s pre-eminent brand. The potatoes packed under the label are U.S. No. 1, but Jerry said they try to exceed the standard. The Double-N bags are premium potatoes with no blemishes and no internal shortcomings. They’re packed in a variety of ways, from bins and cartons to 5-, 10- or 20-pound polybags and clamshells. And because the specialty potatoes are popular with Hispanic customers, the Double-N polybags are available with labels printed in Spanish.

To sell good potatoes that don’t meet the standard for the Double-N brand, Norman Nelson Inc. started a second brand: Golden Seal. The potatoes that go to this line still are U.S. No. 1, but they may have slight surface blemishes. Golden Seal potatoes are packed in 50-pound cartons or 5-pound polybags.

The Pedigree brand is the company’s line of U.S. No. 2 potatoes. Jerry said the potatoes used in this line exceed the standard No. 2 customers might expect, with few major mechanical cuts or damage making their way into the bags. The Pedigree potatoes are sold in 50-pound paper sacks or 15-pound paper or polybags.

Harvesting begins in early September and usually ends in December. The white potatoes don’t store well, so those are sold in-season only. Reds and yellows and a few purples are stored until April.

The brands are distributed nationwide, with the largest customer for the specialty potatoes being California. The company has run into high freight costs going east, but the Canadian market is growing, Jerry said.

Retail Farm Sales

For many years, Norman Nelson Inc. sold potatoes to customers who would walk into the packing shed. In 1985, when the company remodeled its offices and moved to another part of the building, Jerry decided to include a retail store with the new offices. The store is open six days a week during harvest season and sells only potatoes grown on the farm. The price is lower at the retail store than customers can find at supermarkets, and people come from as far away as Seattle to load up on packages for friends and family. The store is a great way to move off-grades and a good way to meet customers, Jerry said.

The first year the store was open he advertised in newspapers but didn’t get much response, so he put up a neon sign with a board, on which he lists current varieties and other messages.

“It’s really grown, and we get people from all over. It’s worked out really well for us. The advertising has been all word of mouth,” he said.



Originally posted Monday, Jan. 28, 2008

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