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Tri-Campbell Farms partner advocates industry ‘over-marketing’

The year was 1977. Tom Campbell had just completed high school. He wasn’t simply looking for a job, he was searching for a vocation – a lifelong career. He learned how to operate a potato harvester that first year in order to plant potatoes with his brother Bill in 1978. A neighboring farmer was retiring and offered his potato equipment to him for $11,000.

“I was as green as I could be,” Campbell said, reflecting back on his introduction to potato farming, “but the equipment consisted of a planter, a harvester, a truck, a bin piler, Bobcat loader, and other miscellaneous equipment. My younger brother Bill and I had everything we needed to plant and harvest a crop of potatoes.”

Their first crop was 120 acres of red potatoes. Little did Campbell suspect from this beginning that he would one day be serving the national potato industry as a grower leader helping to develop national marketing plans and strategy. Campbell was recently elected by his fellow growers from the Red River Valley to serve as a Board Member on the United States Potato Board (USPB).

Though they didn’t have experience farming potatoes, the Campbells lived in the Red River Valley, one of the country’s premier potato production regions. They had friends and neighbors who were willing to impart their wisdom, and help them get started. The sons of a small grain grower and rural mail carrier, their father had instilled in Tom and Bill the values of hard work and the basics of crop production.

As teenagers, Tom, Bill and their younger brother, Greg, left home during the summer months to work as custom harvesters. Beginning in Texas, they followed the grain harvest north with their combines, eventually completing the season near their hometown of Grafton, N.D.

After three years, Greg joined Tom and Bill, and they formed Tri-Campbell Farms, a partnership. The three brothers are equal partners. Today, they grow thousands of acres of potatoes on farms in North Dakota, Florida and New Mexico. Red LaSoda, Dark Red Norland, Red Norland, Sangre, Yukon Gold, LaChipper, and Dakota Jewel varieties are grown for the seed and fresh markets. They have an experimental seed farm on which 110 to 120 different varieties are produced with the cooperation of university potato breeders and scientists.

National Product

Campbell lists weather as one of the biggest challenge for their three farms representing different growing regions across the United States.

“There is always something happening with the weather, and no two years are alike,” he said. “With our winter crops in Florida, we contend with freezes and excess rain. And this year in New Mexico, we started out with two hard freezes, and then it became so hot and dry that we had to run our pivots nonstop. This pushed the crop back two weeks in production.

“We contend with extreme differences. Our farms in Florida receive an annual rainfall of 130 inches, and we have throw-out pumps for draining excess water off as well as pumps for irrigation. Our farming is very intense here, and per acre operating costs can be as high as $5,500.

“In North Dakota, our potatoes are grown in dryland farms. Our input costs are less than half of what they are in Florida, but our yield is about the same. In New Mexico, it’s the traditional irrigated farming on sandy loam soils other growers are familiar with.”

In Florida, planting begins in October and harvest will last from February until May. In New Mexico, Tri-Campbell plants in February and is harvesting by the end of June. The North Dakota crop is planted in April through May, and harvest begins in the middle of August.

The Florida and New Mexico crops are field run right into Tri-Campbell’s fresh packing facilities, and the North Dakota potatoes are piled in storage through May of the following year. All of the production is sold as open market, fresh and seed potatoes.

“We used to be big chip-stock and French fry producers, but we no longer contract with processors,” Campbell said. “Since our focus is on potato marketing, from ‘A to Z’, we find there is a lot of upside potential in cash and spot market sales with our buyers. We ship all over the United States and Canada, and we have hundreds of accounts with repackers, wholesalers, retailers and foodservice organizations.”

Tri-Campbell has its own trucking company and is equipped not only to handle large orders, but can seek out unique opportunities in foodservice or with customers who only need a few pallets of potatoes at a time. “We do whatever our customers demand,” Campbell said. “We work with our buyers on food safety issues, third-party auditing and traceability.”

Tri-Campbell is dealing with potatoes 12 months out of the year. If they aren’t growing them, then they are buying them or making production arrangements and decisions with other growers. Some of their buyers are anxious to switch to new crop potatoes, and others tend to stay with the old crop as long as it’s available.

Automating Trend

Today’s grower/shipper is faced with a steady barrage of labor issues. As with all agricultural producers, Tri-Campbell is constantly challenged in staffing an adequate work force. Various labor issues are making it tougher to hire and keep employees.

“We are continuously upgrading to larger, more automated equipment,” Campbell said. “If I can buy machinery that can replace three or four laborers, I’ll usually do it. In the field, we run four-row harvesters and eight-row planters.

“We are also upgrading our packing facilities. Electronic graders virtually replace 10 to 11 people, eliminating the need for manual grading. We also have automatic balers for all of our poly-bag machines.”

Tri-Campbell is a leading product innovator and recognizes the need for the potato industry to create new products connecting fresh potatoes to consumers with hectic lifestyles and decreasing time for meal preparation. Campbell supports the USPB product innovation work emphasizing the development of fresh potato products that are quick and easy.

“One thing fresh potato shippers need to understand is the 10 pound business has been shrinking,” he said. “Package sizes are getting smaller, and more and more grocery chains want private labeling on their own bags.”

“There are several producers marketing single-serve, microwaveable russets,” Campbell said. “We are the only company producing film-wrapped, microwaveable red bakers.” Tri-Campbell’s specialty is red, white and Yukon Gold potatoes, which comprise about 20 percent of the fresh market. USPB’s A.C. Nielsen and Fresh Facts monitoring program also demonstrates increasing sales with specialty and non-russet varieties.

Over-Marketing Needed

Campbell is serving on the USPB Domestic Marketing Administrative Committee and has gained valuable insights and perspective. He recognizes the need to have programs, like those developed by the USPB, to connect with consumers and relate commodities into their lives.

“Nationally, there are very few commodity groups that are not advertising,” he said. “Look at the milk and beef industries. They are spending millions of dollars promoting their products.

Advertising can be very successful. The board is a great asset to the potato industry. I’ve become a lot better ambassador and promoter through this experience.

“Most modern farmers can grow a quality potato, but it takes a special person to market and sell it profitably. U.S. agriculture has been the king of overproduction, forever. Nobody has ever accused the U.S. farmer of being an ‘over-marketer’, and that is exactly what this industry needs – ‘over-marketing’. Farmers are their own worst enemies because of their tendency to overproduce.”

Campbell also serves on the board of the Red River Valley Fresh Potato Growers Cooperative, part of the United Potato Growers of America. About eight years ago, he helped organize a similar supply management organization in Florida - the Florida Marketing Cooperative. During a time when the Florida potato market was struggling with overproduction and low prices, Campbell visited with each of his fellow growers to discuss marketing. They formed a legal cooperative, and their efforts to help everyone market their production has helped alleviate the competition that was prevalent during poor marketing years.

“Some years ago, if you would have asked me about the difference between the Potato Board or a council, I would not have known, nor would I have cared,” Campbell said. “I was too wrapped up in my farming and my family, and I didn’t want to spend another penny on any program. Today, I recognize the successes the USPB has produced. We have a limited budget, but we’ve done a good job, and we can’t do enough to market and promote our potatoes.”

David Fairbourn is manager, industry communications and policy, for USPB.

Originally posted Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008

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