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Oregon seed grower always learning about the potato industry

On a cool, crisp September morning, as the chill of the early autumn air began evaporating, as the sun climbed higher in the clear blue sky, Jim Carlson was in his element, keeping his seed-potato harvest on schedule despite the random mechanical setbacks that occur during the intensity that is harvest time.

This was the second day of harvest in Culver, Ore., and Carlson, a self-described "hands-on" farmer, was working on a faulty harvester with a sheared key way. After a quick consultation in the field with the harvester operator and the truck driver, Carlson had the harvester up and running and was back in his Ford F-250 pick-up on his way to the storage shed to make sure everything was running smoothly there.

"Some people drive around and manage," Carlson said on a tour of his farm. "I guess I've always been a hands-on person. I'm very active on what goes on out there."

For 34 years, Carlson has been growing potatoes in this central Oregon valley surrounded by mountains – Round Butte dominating the immediate skyline and Mount Hood looming far away to the northwest.

He's a third-generation potato farmer and a second-generation farmer in the area.

"There's been potatoes in the Carlson family as long as I can remember or hear about," Carlson said.

"My grandfather (Ernest Carlson) came from Sweden a long, long time ago and farmed in the Idaho Falls, Shelley area. Then my dad (Floyd Carlson) came over to central Oregon when this irrigation project came in," Carlson said. "I think it was in the early 50s they moved here."

Jim Carlson Farms is a medium-size operation. These days, he's farming between 800 acres and 850 acres, with 140 acres in seed potatoes. His wife Mary does the books and he has one full-time employee, supplemented with about 20 seasonal employees during harvest.

The youngest of seven children, Carlson started out in 1975 growing fresh potatoes but shifted to growing seed after two years when the Hermiston-Boardman area became a major potato production region. Carlson decided if he was going to continue growing potatoes, he would move into the seed potato market.

The Jefferson, Deschuttes and Crook tri-county area just could not compete with the Hermiston-Boardman growers, Carlson said.

"Our yields in this area are not very competitive, if we were trying to go into the fresh market," Carlson said. "We have a short growing season, we're up at 2,900 feet, lot of small fields. Smaller farms in general, so you’ve got to find something that will compete and usually that is in the seed industry."

"Right now, there are only two potato growers in the area and we're both seed operations," Carlson said. "That's an advantage for us because we take care of our crops, and so the likelihood of a disease or anything spreading is cut to a real minimal chance."

"Potato varieties are primarily Norkotah," Carlson said, describing his seed stock. "Our main customers are in the Hermiston area and they're fresh pack growers, and so I'm pretty much looking at fresh varieties and Norkotahs - as much as I don't care to grow because they're pretty tough to grow, but that's what they want so you grow what your customers want."

Along with the Norkotahs, he grows premiers and classics.

"We've got some premiers out of the PVMI program,” Carlson said. “This will be our third year and we're growing some classics – that's another out of the PVMI program. It's our second year with that variety. Both of them crop up with issues here and there, but what year don't you hear that there's some troubles with Russet-Burbanks, and yet they continue to grow them years and years?"

Seed potatoes and carrot seed are Carlson's two main cash crops. Carlson said he had heard recent statistics that 70 percent of domestic carrot seed is grown in the Round Butte area.

"You can go anywhere in the world, you eat a carrot and there's a 50 percent chance that seed came from here," Carlson said.

Wheat, alfalfa and grass seed are his other rotation crops.

As a seed grower, Carlson has to anticipate what varieties the market will demand two to three years from now.

"Trying to find out the varieties that people are going to want is probably one of the more challenging things we do," Carlson said. "It takes multiple years to get to where you’ve got something to sell."

What's the trick?

"You listen to the voice of the industry and the people I sell to," he said. "Anymore, you don't grow something and hope that somebody will step up to buy it. You have to work from the consumer end backwards," he said.

Carlson has been on the Oregon Potato Commission for nine years and serves as Oregon's representative on the National Potato Council.

"That's where I get my information. I'm on different committees. You hear what people are saying, you pull that all together and try to make an educated decision," Carlson said.

Despite his 34 years of field experience, Carlson feels there's always something new to learn and is reluctant to rely on past experience as a guide to the future.

"There's a learning curve. I'm still climbing it," he said. "I don't know that this is unique to farming."

"About the time you start resting on your laurels or get comfortable in the place you are, there's somebody else out there banging on the doors of those customers," Carlson said.

"After you've been at it 10, 12 years and you think, 'I've arrived, I've got a good customer base, things are clicking, OK I've arrived,' but I don't think you ever arrive. If you think that, you're probably done or you're fooling yourself," he said.

"You need to keep hungry. You need to keep aggressive. You need to appreciate your customers. About the time you start thinking they're your customers, they're somebody else’s," Carlson said.

"You need to communicate, you need to appreciate the relationships you can build with them and constantly work at it," he said.


Originally posted Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009

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