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Ohio grower helps forge new path for state’s produce farmers

During the 1920s and 1930s, potato chip companies relied on Ohio potato growers to supply them with chipping potatoes. Dan Dee Pretzel and Potato Chip Co. built a plant in the midst of the potato-growing region in 1938, and Frito Lay still operates a plant in Wooster, Ohio.

But potato production has waned in the Midwest state, as has the participation of the remaining growers, said Don Ramseyer, a Smithville grower and former president of the Ohio Vegetable and Potato Growers Association. That group merged with the Ohio Fruit Growers Society and the Direct Agricultural Marketing Association in January to form the Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association.

The Ohio Farm Bureau had managed the fruit and vegetable groups, but the bureau did not renew its contracts this year. Finding a new service provider to manage the associations’ meetings and farm tours was part of the push to merge, as it’s easier to find a provider for one group than it is for three, Ramseyer said. In March, the association received word that OFA – an association of floriculture professionals – would be the new service provider beginning April 1.

They had become too reliant on Farm Bureau, he said, so the new organization should reinvigorate the annual meeting. More than 1,100 attended the annual meeting in 2006, but that dropped to just more than 900 in 2007. For 2008, Ramseyer said they were looking at moving away from sessions on individual crops to more of an overall production and marketing seminar.

“I think it’s going to be a lot better,” Ramseyer said.

One of the trends Ramseyer pointed to affecting Ohio fruit and vegetable growers is the consumer desire for local produce. The president of the newly merged organization, Bobby Jones Jr., is an expert in that area. He operates Chefs Garden, a farm in Huron that grows specialty crops for chefs in Ohio and throughout the rest of the country.

“There will be more of a concentration on providing quality fruits and vegetables for restaurants, grocers and chefs in Ohio,” Ramseyer said.

Ramseyer is working with Charla Devine of the marketing association and Jeff MacQueen of the fruit group to plan the annual meeting and farm tour. The bus tour will continue as planned, and this year will be in Ohio. One of the stops will be Ramseyer’s potato farm, and another will be at the farm of his cousin, Dennis, who grows some potatoes but has gotten more into agritainment, with a corn maze and 60 acres of pumpkins.

Ramseyer Farms

The Ramseyers have grown potatoes in Ohio for more than 70 years. Don’s grandfather, A.C. Ramseyer, bought the land near Smithville just after the turn of the century. It started as a dairy farm, but in 1923 A.C. planted his first potato and wheat crops. In 1932, disaster struck. A fire swept through the dairy barn, killing all 150 Guernsey cows.

After the fire, A.C. decided to focus on growing crops. He sold 100-pound bags of potatoes to customers who came to the farm, and he began trucking the bags to Cleveland, Mansfield and Wayne.

By 1940, the farm’s acreage was up to 1,300 around Smithville and another 300 acres for seed potatoes in Coudersport, Pa.

A.C. died in 1948, leaving sons Alvin (A.C. Jr.) and Arden to run the farm. At the time, A.C. Jr. was in college and Arden was still in high school. They cut production acreage down to about 400 acres to make it more manageable. They ran the farm together for seven years, then divided it up between them.

Arden’s son, Dennis, still has his own farm, but he’s ventured into agritainment in addition to his potatoes and wheat crops.

Don joined his dad, A.C. Jr., in 1976 after earning a bachelor’s degree in business from Bluffton College. He took over the farm responsibilities in 1988, but that doesn’t mean his dad has slowed down. Except for two months out of the year when he’s in Florida, A.C. Jr. can be found on the farm, often sitting at the end of the packing line watching.

“He still comes over every day,” Don said. “He still wants to be a part of it any which way he can.”

Don has three children and two stepchildren, and so far only his stepson has expressed interest in working on the farm. Four out of the five are artists, including his stepson.

“How they got into this art thing, I don’t know,” he said. “But I’ll support them whatever they decide to do.”

Chipping and Processing

Ramseyer grows potatoes for chipping and processing customers. The farm sold potatoes to Frito Lay for almost 50 years, but in the early 1990s it became harder for smaller growers to compete with massive operations with acreage in the thousands.

Ramseyer grows 250 acres of wheat and 250 of chipping and processing potatoes. He grows Reba for processing and Andover and Snowden for chips, but this season he’s trying a new chipping variety, Dakota Crisp. He grew Atlantics for more than 20 years but the variety is susceptible to hollow heart and heat necrosis – and since he doesn’t irrigate his fields, a hot growing season would increase the chance of the yield-reducing problems.

“Andover has done well, it just doesn’t yield as well as the Atlantic,” he said.

Ramseyer said Andover yields between 250 cwt. and 300 cwt., compared to Atlantic’s 285 cwt. to 350 cwt.

Growing in Ohio

Pest and disease pressure is minimal in the Ohio River Valley, Ramseyer said. Colorado potato beetle was a problem, but that’s ceased since Admire came out in 1995.

“CPB pressure has pretty much disappeared,” he said.

He rotates Admire with Platinum, which have similar modes of action. He also uses the bacterial SpinTor and synthetic pyrethroids. Ramseyer carefully monitors the chemicals and the amounts he’s putting on his crops.

“We’re really conscious of what we put on there,” he said. “We follow all labels and never apply more than we need. Since some of our fields border the city limits, safety is our No. 1 concern.”

He uses his scouting regimen to check the effectiveness of his pest and disease management practices. There isn’t much disease pressure in central Ohio, and Ramseyer has only seen blight twice since he’s been in the business.

“In Ohio, we’ve been pretty blessed,” he said.

He uses a 10-day schedule of mancozeb and shortens it to seven days if the conditions are right for blight.

With biofuels becoming more popular and crops that supply the industry becoming more valuable, Ramseyer said this could be an interesting time for farmers. Processors and brokers are going to have to compete on price or risk losing growers, and Ramseyer said in the coming years it should make the industry “a little more fun than it has been.

“Farming is going to get a little more exciting with the price of grain going up,” he said.

Growers, especially of potatoes, will have to wrestle with growing potatoes or other crops that may be more profitable in the short term. Ramseyer sees one advantage immediately: growing corn is a lot easier than potatoes. After a total of four knee surgeries and one rotator cuff surgery, easier sounds better.

“I beat myself up growing potatoes,” he said.

Originally posted Monday, Apr. 23, 2007

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