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Florida grower fills seasonal need for chipping potatoes

Florida potato production is counter-cyclical. While growers in other states are looking at snow-covered fields, tinkering with their equipment and watching their storage sheds get lower and lower, growers in Florida are planting a winter crop,

Frank Johns, owner of Tater Farms in Hastings, Fla., is a fourth-generation potato grower who’s watched the window for Florida growers get shorter as storage techniques and new varieties have gotten better. Johns runs the farm with his wife, Polly, and his youngest son, Christopher, joined the farm in charge of planting after graduating from the University of Florida in December. His sons both graduated with degrees in building construction, so time will tell if Tater Farms will be managed by a fifth generation of Johns.

“We would like for the farm to continue, but it might end with my generation,” Johns said. “It is a way of life and takes a certain type of person to put up with the pressures of a farm.”

Tater Farms

The first of the Johns family, Frank’s great-grandfather, moved to the Hastings area in the early 1920s from Rockford, Ill. He’d been a potato farmer in Illinois, and soon started a farm in Florida. His son took over the farm and eventually passed it on to Johns’ dad and uncle, who incorporated the farm as Smith and Johns Farm.

After graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in agricultural economics, Johns went to work for the family business in 1973. He soon found that their way of doing business didn’t suit him – he was young and wanted to “set the world on fire,” he said.

“They were very successful, but very conservative,” Johns said.

So he left and went to work for a neighboring farm that was a grower, shipper and packer of cabbage and chipping potatoes. He started as an employee, then bought some equipment and became a sharecropper and eventually bought land that would become Tater Farms.

A farmer has to be good with his hands and willing to try new things. Johns’ interest in new ideas – and working with a friend that owns a machine shop – has led to new pieces of equipment on the farm that make farming easier or faster.

“I’ve been blessed with the curse that anything that comes out of the box I tinker with,” he said. “And my tinkering isn’t always good.”

Over the years, he’s built an all-hydraulic four-row planter, a 16-row bedder and found ways to make the seed cutter more efficient, he said.

The size and product mix of the farm has changed over they years, and he now grows 250 acres of chipping potatoes. Everything is grown under a preseason contract, with about 90 percent of the crop going to Utz Potato Chips in Hanover, Pa. Johns gets $9 net per hundredweight, but tubers have to be of the highest quality and he has to provide top service.

“The demands of our customers get more stringent every year both in quality and safety,” Johns said.

A recent addition to the farm was 500 acres of sod. Until a few years ago, Johns grew between 300 acres and 500 acres of cabbage, but labor and marketing issues made the crop unprofitable. The state’s population is growing, with more homes as a result, so many growers are switching over to sod to meet that need. Johns hired a farm manager two years ago, Eric Hjort, who has a background in sod and marketing, and Johns has been teaching him the potato side of the business.

Johns starts planting potatoes during the second week of January and finishes at the end of February. Harvest typically begins in early May, but Johns watches the storage shed levels in other states to determine how intensively to harvest. The last of the potatoes come out of the ground the first week of June, about six to eight weeks before the next growing region, North Carolina, starts harvesting.

After the potato harvest, Johns plants a cover crop of sudangrass, which he turns over in August and September. He doesn’t plant a money crop like small grains because the harvest would be right in the middle of hurricane season, but he said some of his neighbors are starting to grow specialty Korean and Chinese cabbages to supplement the potato crop.

Florida Agriculture

Growers in Florida benefit from a tropical climate that sees January temperatures in the mid-70s during the day, down to the 40s at night. Most of the potato acreage in the state is in the Hastings area, although some acreage further south plants even earlier.

“Florida is unique in the potato deal,” Johns said. “We grow in a counter-cyclical climate that potatoes thrive in.”

The soil in Hastings is sandy loam and naturally flat, but Johns uses a laser level to make sure the fields are perfectly flat. Water is applied by seepage irrigation water that comes from artisan wells, which means growers have to work with a water management association to determine water use rights. As residential areas have expanded into farming communities, water rights have become a bigger issue, Johns said.

The housing boom in Florida has impacted potato growers in the Hastings area. In the last five years, some of Johns’ neighboring potato farms have been sold, all but one to residential development, he said.

“That’s not really startling everywhere, but for here it’s surprising,” he said. “We’ve lost a lot of significant growers over the years.”

There are other issues with houses encroaching on farmland that growers have to be aware of. In addition to water regulations, chemical applications and spray drifts have to be carefully monitored, and highway rights have to be worked out so farmers can move their machinery to other fields on roads that carry more non-farm traffic.

The housing boom hasn’t been all bad – the growers that remain have expanded their farms and yields have gone up. Johns said the average potato yield in the area is probably around 300 cwt. per acre, and in a good year he’ll average 300 cwt. to 400 cwt. per acre.

But Florida potato growers have to watch out for events that can drastically reduce yields. The region can get freezing temperatures in late February or early March, which can damage young emerging plants. If a freeze is predicted, Johns can make the decision to cover the plants with dirt. Although it sounds counter-productive, it sometimes works, he said.

The farm also can get dumped on with heavy rains. The ditches can handle five to six inches of rain in a few hours, but the impact of that much rain can knock down hilled rows, which can cause root damage and sunburn.

Despite the weather and growing pains in Florida, there’s no other place that Johns would choose to live.

“The North is for people young at heart, and that’s why a lot of people from up North want to move to Florida at some point in their lives,” he said.

He wouldn’t choose to be in any other industry, either.

“I love growing potatoes. There have been a few years I wish I didn’t have to worry about paying the electric bill or fuel bill or fertilizer bill, but I’ve still loved growing potatoes,” Johns said.

Originally posted Monday, Feb. 25, 2008

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