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Fourth generation grower couldn’t stay away from the farm

Running a potato farm is a not a commitment to be taken lightly, and Mike Baginski’s parents, Ted and Sue, wanted him to be sure it was what he really wanted to do. They had him move away from the family’s farm in Antigo, Wis., to gain some “real-world” experience and a perspective away from the family and farm.

So, after earning an associate’s degree, Mike moved to Hagerstown, Md., to work at his uncle’s shipping company. He stayed there a little more than a year, all the while harboring a desire to take over the family business.

“I knew I wanted to come back,” Mike said. “I missed Wisconsin, and I missed farming.”

Mike said his mom probably didn’t want him to return to the potato business because she’s “lived through it once,” and wouldn’t want to do it again. But the Baginski men secretly dreamed of running the business together, so in 1999 Mike packed again and moved home.

The Family

The Baginski family is now in its fourth generation of farming in Wisconsin. Sabin Baginski, a Polish immigrant, started an 80-acre dairy farm in the 1920s but his son, Ted, switched over to potatoes after buying the farm from his dad in 1944. Ted’s three sons, Ted Jr., Florian and John, took over the seed potato operations in the late 1950s and ran Ted Baginski and Sons Inc. together until 1999.

That was the year Mike returned to Wisconsin. He and his dad bought out the other Baginski brothers, and Mike became president and his dad vice president.

Though some extended families can have power struggles, the Baginskis were different. Ted, Florian and John Baginski had 16 children among them, and only two were boys. Mike said the other Baginski boy wanted nothing to do with the farm, so the responsibility fell to him.

The father and son team butted heads at first, “until I realized he’s right 99 percent of the time,” Mike said. He uses his dad as a “sounding board” for new ideas because the elder Baginski has a wealth of knowledge about the potato industry. Mike said he’s taken an aggressive approach to the business, and looking back he probably would have gone a little slower.

“It’s just my personality,” he said.

The Farm

The Baginskis grow on about 1,500 acres on a three-year rotation -– about 500 acres are dedicated to potatoes every year.

That’s increased over the last few years, Mike said, but they’ll probably stay at that size for a while.

This year’s harvest ran from Sept. 11 to early October. It was dry early in the season, and they had to irrigate more than usual, but there was some much-needed rain and cooler temperatures near the end of the season.

Ted Baginski and Sons grows eight varieties of seed potatoes: Red Norland, Dark Red Norland, Superior, Russet Norkotahs, Russet
Norkotah line 8, Gold Rush, Russet Burbank and Freedom Russet. The number of varieties also has increased under Mike’s leadership.

Demand from growers has caused the company to add varieties. Growers are eager to try new varieties, Mike said, but it takes two to three years before the seed is available.

The Baginskis used to grow chip stock, but didn’t join Frito Lay years back, and now the focus has changed to more fresh and processing potatoes. The company also has diversified over the years and now uses a brokerage to market its table stock.

“That way, if one sector of the industry is bad, we have another sector to even it out,” Mike said.

The company has eight full-time employees, including one uncle, John, who stayed on as an employee after he was bought out.

“He’s irreplaceable,” Mike said.

During the harvest, the workforce grows to about 20, but most of the same workers return every year. Mike credits much of the company’s success to the experienced employees that are there year round or just for a season.

“It makes farming easier when you’re surrounded by good people.”

The Future

The Baginskis are always on the lookout for ways to improve their farming practices. One such area Mike is trying to improve is harvesting only when conditions are ideal. He’s now watching the pulp temperature carefully and stops harvesting at 68 degrees fahrenheit.

“We have to establish patience in the growing season,” he said.

He also wants to buy larger harvesters so his crews can work faster when the weather is right. “Patience always wins” over hurrying to harvest when the weather isn’t just right, he said.

Ted Baginski and Sons is also doing more work in the winter to be prepared for its customers in the spring. As the potatoes are sorted and stored, their size and quality are recorded every hour. That way, later in the year, Baginski can look at the book and have a better idea of what potatoes are moving at that moment.

“It makes it easier to market the crop,” he said.

In 2002, the company added a storage shed that helps sort and size in the fall so the packs are ready in the spring. It also has helped fill orders that have become more specific, Mike said. Some customers may just want size B, others may want a bigger bottom and others still want to specify a size on top and bottom.

“Everything that was harder for us to do we tried to make easier by having in-line sorters,” he said. “It’s a lot more work in the winter, but if we don’t do it someone else will.”

Mike credits his uncle in Maryland for teaching some of the tools he uses every day. Working as a dispatcher taught him about the importance of having company policies and how to creatively solve problems. He’s also applying his uncle’s philosophy of customer service to the seed farm business.

“He always acts like his No. 1 customer could be gone tomorrow.”

To the Baginskis, that means taking care of your No. 2 and No. 3 customers just as well so that they can step in and become your No. 1 customer.

“That’s the way we approach sales,” Mike said. “We try to get more one-on-one with the customers.”

The company also has its own trucks, which the Baginskis consider a form of customer service. Mike said that’s the one thing that gets sales and keeps customers coming back. With fuel prices rising and seed prices becoming more “competitive,” Mike sometimes has to take a little bit less on the shipping to get the deal -– but that’s offset by knowing where his potatoes are and being able to plan shipments more efficiently.

“We always know where the trucks are and we never have to wait for trucks.”

Mike is looking to the future and trying to find new tools that will give him more information to make decisions. He’s looking at GPS for his trucks and refrigeration for his storage sheds, which currently use outside air to keep the potatoes cool. He said he could ensure a better product if he could keep all the variables as constant as possible.

“The more we control, the better it is for us.”

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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