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Schroeders work together to grow Idaho’s N&M Farms

Farming, ranching and the business of agriculture are in the very DNA of Nate and Michelle Schroeder. They both grew up on farms around American Falls, Idaho, and they have an intuitive understanding of the farming cycles. During their 30-year marriage and as partners in N&M Farms, they have experienced both the good times, when a harvest comes in better then expected, and the bad times, when the harvest comes in thin.

From the hilltop home in eastern Power County that Michelle grew up in and where they moved their family 15 years ago, the Schroeders have watched their farm and ranch grow into an operation with 800 acres of potatoes, 1,500 acres of wheat, 500 acres of corn, 200 acres of hay and 60 registered Herefords in 2009.

It's a partnership in which their mutual backgrounds and individual strengths have been instrumental in their success, Michelle said.

"I think it helps that we were both raised on a farm," she said. "And so we both have an appreciation for this lifestyle. I am more creative, more daring. I like to try new things. Nate's more focused, and I think that's an important part of our marriage."

Nate agreed with his wife's assessment.

"I'm a creature of habit – never be risky, never take a chance. She pushes me a little bit. She loves a new challenge. She got me back in the cattle business," Nate said, laughing.

They have three children: Their oldest, Sarah, 28, is a nurse in Boise. Their sons, Matthew, 26, a graduate of Idaho State University, and Mark, 23, an ISU student who is joining the Army National Guard this summer, work on the farm. Nate hopes to see his sons eventually take over the farm.

Although he’d like to see Matthew and Mark take over the business some day, he said he's not pushing them. It's a decision that comes with a lot of sacrifice.

"You better love it," he said of farming. "This isn't just a job, it's a lifestyle. It's an every-hour-consuming business, and if you want to farm, you better like the hours and you better like the stress. But it's very rewarding," Nate said.

Nate started farming with his father-in-law, Ed Jones, in 1979, following his marriage to Michelle. By 1981, he and Michelle had their first field of their own, raising 60 acres of Lemhis for Lamb Weston.

"Ed gave me my start in the spud business, and I slowly grew and then he retired in about 2001 and I took over the whole farm," Nate said.

Most of the farmland is leased from the city of Pocatello or from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Fort Hall.

When he first began farming, it was almost all Russet Burbanks being grown. This year, out of the 800 acres of potatoes, N&M is raising only 60 acres of Russet Burbanks.

"I raise eight different varieties of chipping potatoes, and this year it’s Dakota Pearls," Nate said.

He's always grown potatoes for process contractors Lamb Weston and Frito Lay.

"I've never sold a potato to a fresh pack," Nate said. "I have never raised an open potato. I've always been contracted. Either chips or french fries."

The process market has been in some turmoil this year, with Lamb Weston cutting back the number of contracted acres and, in some cases, dropping growers completely.

Nate considers himself lucky that his contract was only cut in half.

"I went from about 600 acres to 300 acres for them this year. With my rotation, I didn't have as many acres as last year, thank goodness. After talking to a lot of guys that got cut clear off, I was, 'Okay, I got something, better than nothing,'" he said.

A lot of potato farmers prepared their fields last fall, paying higher input prices, only to see their contracts cut, Nate said.

"I lucked out," he said. "I'm kind of the king of procrastinating, I just did a couple of fields last fall. The price was just insane and I thought, 'you know, maybe I'll just wait this out and see what spring looks like,' and by gosh it softened up and it was lucky procrastinating that paid the bills.”

He's hesitantly optimistic about 2009. He has a better chipping contract that was not renegotiated this year, and if the spring rains ever dry up he thinks the year will be OK.

When a weather forecaster told him that the cold, rainy June weather reminded him of 1993's conditions, Nate said he immediately thought of the hollow hearts and rejected potatoes from that year.

If there's one lesson he's learned in more than 30 years of potato farming, it's not to worry about the things you have no control over.

“You're always dealing with Mother Nature,” he said. “You get curve balls thrown at you and you just have to live with them.”

Originally posted Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2009

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