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Michigan Family Grows Minitubers Without Soil

In 1997, Don Sklarczyk embarked on an adventure that would forever change the way he did business: He switched to hydroponically growing minitubers for seed potatoes.

Sklarczyk Seed Farm, Johannesburg, Mich., now has about 30,000 square feet of greenhouse space dedicated to growing minitubers.

“When we were starting hydroponics with potatoes, we were one of the few using this method, so you couldn’t go to a textbook,” said Ben Sklarczyk, Don’s son. “You tried it and it either worked or it didn’t.”

Along the way, Don said they’ve learned many lessons. Among them: without soil, there isn’t a barrier to protect the potatoes, and there’s very little room for error. If anything is wrong with the water, the potatoes immediately suffer.

“Going into hydroponics, we have eliminated the buffer to manipulate the growing environment,” Don said. “It also eliminates the cushion for error in regards to a 100 percent crop loss in a short period of time.”

In fact, Ben said, going even a few hours without checking the potatoes or the water supply could result in huge damage to the crop.

“With hydroponics, we have to pay a lot closer attention to the fine details than you would with a field operation,” he said.

Trial and error has served the Sklarczyks well. They learned how to grow every single one of their varieties using hydroponics. They’ve continued to grow their farm since the first crop of hydroponic seed potatoes in 1997.

“It has added to my stimulation of life,” Don said. “It created a new challenge for me that I thought would last for a year or two. It has not stopped.”

The Growing Cycle

The Sklarczyks use tissue culturing to propagate the potato plants. It starts by taking the meristematic – cells that have the ability to divide – tip of a plant and putting it into a sterile environment, which is, in this case, the lab at Sklarczyk Seed Farm. In the lab, Mary Kay Sklarczyk and the staff send the tissue culture plants to a third-party testing laboratory, AGDIA in Elkhart Ind., to make sure the plants are free of viruses and bacteria. They maintain the sterile environment so the plant will continue to be clean. From this tissue, the Sklarczyks are able to increase the plant material by four or five times in one month.

“You can go out in the field and select for the best quality, best type and in one year produce as many offspring as my father did in his whole lifetime,” Don said. “We do whole generation cycles every month in the lab.”

The plants are started in the greenhouse, where they stay for about 10 to 14 days. From there, they move into the layout and spend the rest of the time growing under plastic. The plastic the Sklarczyks use is black on the bottom and white on the top. The white serves as a protective layer, as it reflects the sun and keeps the tubers from getting too hot. It takes the plants about 25 to 35 days to produce tubers.

At harvest, tubers are picked when they are between 15 to 17 mm in size. The crops of minitubers are harvested constantly, so if a tuber is too small on any given day, the staff will come back through later and harvest again. During harvest, the Sklarczyks employ between 20 and 24 people.

From the greenhouse, the tubers are placed in sterilized plastic containers and put in a conditioning room. The room is kept at 55? F.

“When you harvest a potato in the field, you usually go out and vine desiccate and that kills the potato and it gets a tougher skin so it’s ready to store,” Ben said. “We don’t have that luxury. We can’t go in and vine desiccate because we go back and constantly harvest. When you pick the potatoes off, there’s no skin on them, so you have to get a skin set. That’s why we put them in the conditioning room. It makes them hardier, and they store better for us.”

One year in the beginning, they had a problem with the crop they shipped because they didn’t allow the potatoes to set a skin, Don said.

“The smaller ones looked like raisins because they were so dehydrated,” he said. “We recognized that we needed to come up with a better way of storing potatoes.”

Every three to four days, someone from the staff goes into the conditioning storage to rotate the minitubers. After 14 days, the tubers leave the conditioning room. They are taken to long-term storage, where they await shipment to growers in the spring. Conditions in long-term storage are similar to what they are for commercial potatoes, Ben said. The difference is that the minitubers are stored in plastic bins on shelves.

The Sklarczyks produce two crops each year. The first is planted in March, with harvest finishing up in late June or early July. They completely clean out and disinfect the facility before planting the second crop. The second crop is left in production until mid-November. After the final harvest of the year, everything is removed from the greenhouses for a complete building sterilization.

The Customers

The Sklarczyks’ customers are mainly located in the United States and Canada, but some of the minitubers are shipped into parts of Latin America and Africa. Everything they grow is on contract from their customers, and the customers decide on the varieties.

Why do the customers opt for minitubers instead of cut seed?

“By planting a whole minituber, you are allowing (it) to have its natural skin intact to prevent any pathogens that live in the soil from attacking the minituber,” Don said.

Through every step of the process, Don keeps his mind on producing the best, cleanest seed possible for his customers.

“There are a lot of people whose livelihoods depend on the product we put out,” he said.

The provider-customer relationship is a close one that has worked to benefit both parties.

“Many times, growers will have an opinion that a new variety holds promise, so they come to us and contract with us,” Don said. “Because, with such a rapid multiplication that takes place, they can get a jump on the market. And if the request is timely to us, we could give him enough material so that in a couple of years he could supply a substantial portion of the market with that new variety.”

Every year, Sklarczyk Seed Farm is inspected so the minitubers can be shipped internationally. Just recently, an inspector from Mexico inspected the farm.

The Family

Working alongside family can be a difficult situation, but Don and Ben have made it work – and work well.

“It’s been a building process,” Don said. “I am challenged by the youthfulness of Ben, Brian and Jerry, but they’re good challenges.”

Ben, too, said he is learning from working closely with his father.

“I’ve learned a lot of patience and dedication – without either one of those, the operation wouldn’t be a success,” Ben said. “In order to have the proper outcome, you have to do what’s best for the operation.”

Besides, having a second person to share ideas with and to turn to for help when something comes up has been beneficial for the farm as a whole, Don said.

“By having someone to bounce ideas off from, many of the pitfalls are prevented before they come about,” he said.

But Don, Mary Kay and Ben don’t do it alone. Don said they’d be nowhere without their staff – their strength.

In addition to a well-trained staff, the farm has the most up-to-date technology and tools for doing tissue cultures and growing minitubers, but Don doesn’t let aesthetics get in the way of doing the job.

“We’re not into frills,” he said. “We’re into practicality and production and putting out the best crop possible without a lot of fanfare.”

Sklarczyk Seed Farm’s field seed potato growing operation is leased by the seed division of L. Walther Farms.

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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