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Seed Spud Growers Hanging on in Central Oregon

Not far from where the epic western “Bend of the River” was filmed in 1952 lies a semi-arid region in central Oregon where a sizeable portion of the state’s seed potatoes are grown.

Anyone who’s spent any time in those parts can point you to Macy Farms near Culver, about 30 miles north of Bend.

The Macy brothers, Ed and Richard, along with Ed’s oldest son, Michael, are graduates of the School of Agriculture at Oregon State University. They share ownership and management of the operation.

The Macys farm about 1,500 acres of irrigated, rather shallow volcanic soil, most of it owned by the family. Except for about 60 acres of peppermint grown for its fragrant, potent oil, the farm is devoted to growing seed: potato, vegetable, grass, wheat and hybrid sunflower.

In the 1960s and ’70s, central Oregon was a major producer of commercial potatoes in the state, with about 20,000 acres and several packing sheds. But like peppermint, the crop has all but vanished.

The Basin Blues

While peppermint fell prey to verticillium wilt and increasing competition from India and China, commercial spuds in central Oregon got the heave-ho at the hands of growers on both sides of the river in the Columbia Basin to the northeast, where center pivots rule and better growing conditions prevail.

“We couldn’t compete with them,” Ed Macy said. “We can get 350 to 400 cwt. per acre and they get 600 cwt. And our costs are just as much if not more.”

Even though the industry-bashing Atkins diet has been falling from favor, Macy does not see this as a good omen for the return to the potato glory days of the last century.

Since seed farmers experience the same ups and downs that commercial growers do, seed potato farms in the Culver-Madras area have felt the wrath of poor markets, Canadian imports, the strong dollar, over-production and slumping prices.

The Macy brothers’ late father, Dwight, an Idaho transplant, began growing commercial spuds and other crops around Culver in 1947. The family saw the writing on the wall and switched to seed potatoes during the late 1970s.

“We changed over gradually to seed potatoes over a three-year period and liked the results and have only grown certified seed since then,” Macy said.

In 2005, the Macys planted 110 acres of seed potatoes, only a third of what they once farmed and down significantly from the 240 acres they grew in 2004.

Like all growers in the region, the Macys get their irrigation water from the man-made Wickiup Reservoir 75 miles south, which feeds into the Deschutes River. Water is diverted from the river in Bend to support 55,000 acres of irrigated farmland in central Oregon.

While unseasonably heavy rains during the spring ruined some crops in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which lies on the other side of the Cascades more than 100 miles away, it was a blessing to growers in central Oregon.

“Farming would have been pretty bleak here with less than adequate irrigation water,” Macy said.

That said, the rains in central Oregon did delay potato planting on the Macy farm by about three weeks.

Carrot Seed Takes Over

Because of the economic hard times in the potato industry, the Macys grow more carrot seed than potato seed these days.

The majority of the seed potatoes grown on the Macy farm go to commercial growers operating in the fertile Columbia Basin, along with the Klamath Basin, Malheur County and northern Nevada.

The Macys became involved in the development, promotion and production of new varieties coming out of the Tri State Varietal Development Program involving Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

Starting from minitubers and plantlets of these numbered selections and producing successive generations of them, maintaining low disease levels and successfully selling to commercial growers and processors is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking, Macy said. No other segment of the industry helps finance the high costs or take on any of the risk involved in this venture.

“We ended up dumping large quantities of generation 3 seed because of cancelled verbal commitments, no willingness to contract for more than one season and such reasons as ‘none of our plant managers want another variety in our facility to deal with,’” he said.

“I guess we’re slow learners and our balance sheet had to convince us to give up on this important and challenging part of the seed potato business.

“We scaled our production back in acreage and down to three varieties and have put more emphasis on hybrid carrot seed, radish seed, coriander seed, etc. Hopefully, some profitability and stability will come back to the potato industry, as we desire to remain seed potato growers.”

The Macys, who normally plant second generation certified seed in mid-May, grew three varieties in 2005: the fresh market Norkotah Russets, all-purpose (fresh market and processing) Russet Burbanks and Ranger Russets, a processing variety.

They also hand-planted a small plot of pre-nuclear Umatilla mini-tubers.

In the Culver-Madras area, five-year rotations are the norm, with the family’s other seed crops sharing the ground between seed potato crops.

A Rocky Harvest

Because central Oregon lies close to the Cascade Mountain Range and the Macy farm is in the shadow of Mt. Jefferson, it’s not unusual to find more than a few rocks in some fields. A nuisance to farm machinery, the often brick-size rocks can also bog down sorting lines.

One of the advantages of growing seed potatoes in Central Oregon is that the region is isolated by large distances and mountain ranges from other growing districts. This reduces exposure to potato diseases and insect vectors.

As for seed potato prices, Macy said they should be good this year.

“It’s usually November or December before prices are set.”

He added that the break-even point on the Macy farm is approximately $7 per cwt. and rising, due to increasing fuel, fertilizer and labor costs.

What’s the future look like as far as seed potatoes are concerned?

“The jury’s still out whether in five or 10 years we’ll even be in the seed potato business, and at my age I may not have to make that decision,” Macy said. “I sincerely hope we are, because it is a challenging and rewarding business and filled with good people.”

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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