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Washington grower leads family business of potatoes and fruit

Like many young people who grow up on farms, Jared Balcom wanted nothing to do with agriculture when he went away to college at Washington State University.

“I’d had my fill of farming. It kind of gets old after awhile,” he said. “I was 180 degrees from agriculture.”

He majored in biology and did three years of pre-med, but one summer had the chance to work on a wheat farm that was owned by a friend’s family.

“I realized how much I missed farming, missed agriculture, missed being outdoors,” he said.

The Family Business

Jared, now 33, went to his father and asked to work for the family-owned company. He wasn’t given a desk in the office, but was given the opportunity to work hard and earn the respect of his father and the employees of Balcom and Moe, based in Pasco, Wash. His dad, Maury, told him “if you want to do this, this is where you start.” He’s now the fourth generation of Balcoms to farm.

“I started at the bottom and worked my way back up,” he said. “I learned from the ground up.”

Jared said he did everything from hauling potatoes to sorting them. It was a new experience for him, even growing up on the farm, because growing up he had worked on the fruit-growing side of the business and not the row crop side.

“They’re two completely separate growing operations and you need two completely different knowledge sets,” Jared said.

Jared was named president of family-owned Balcom and Moe last July, 10 years from the time he started at ground level. When he’s not running the operations, his other job is husband to Kellee and father to 2-year-old McKaila. His second child, a boy, is due in April.

Before becoming president, Jared was the chief operating officer. His job duties haven’t changed much, but he no longer shares responsibility for the company decisions.

“All of the responsibility falls on my shoulders,” he said.

The responsibilities are broad on the farm, which makes Balcom and Moe a little different from other farming operations. The company grows about 1,500 acres of Russet Norkotahs a year, plus rotation crops of hay, alfalfa and sweet corn. The company has a fruit operation consisting of 30 acres of apples, 24 acres of cherries and 300 acres of grapes. Half the grape acreage is for wine. Until about two years ago, the company made and marketed its own wine under the Balcom and Moe name.

Maury Balcom studied enology at Fresno State University and was the head winemaker for the farm’s winery. He’s been growing winegrapes in the area since the early 1970s. He started making wine under the Quarry Lake label in the 1980s, and in 1994 the Balcom and Moe label was added, according to the company’s Web site. In recent years, the wine industry has exploded in eastern Washington, and the price of wine has decreased. It wasn’t profitable to continue making the private-label wine so they stopped production, but Jared wouldn’t rule out starting again if the price of wine goes back up. The company is still able to use its winegrapes because of good relationships with wineries in the area, and Jared said his dad has worked hard to sell them the farm’s winegrapes.

Jared works closely with his dad, who manages the fruit side of the business. There are always some difficulties when the next generation starts making decisions at a company, and it was no different at Balcom and Moe. But Jared credits his family with his success at the company.

“I’m very fortunate that my dad and I have a great relationship,” Jared said. “We went through a few growing pains.”

But Balcom is only half the Balcom and Moe name. The Moes still own some of the land that the crops are grown on, so they’re partners in the company, but the Balcoms manage the growing operations and marketing of the crops. The two families have farmed together since the 1920s and have been working under the Balcom and Moe name since the 1950s, when Maury Balcom, Jared’s grandfather and owner of a packing shed, partnered with Eric “Joe” Moe, a local farmer.

They moved their operations as the water rights and irrigation developed along the Columbia River, ending up in Pasco, where Jared was born and raised.

Smart Growth

Potato production at Balcom and Moe was right where it needed to be in 2006, Jared said. In an average year, the company grows between 45,000 and 50,000 tons of potatoes. The 2005 crop was a record for the company, and although it wasn’t as large in 2006, it was still a good crop.

“Quality-wise, we feel very good about our crop,” Jared said.

The farm is a member of United Potato Growers of America, and Jared said he supported the goals of the organization. As part of the acreage reduction plan suggested by United, potato acreage on the farm was reduced by about 10 percent in 2005. Even after a record year in 2005, Balcom and Moe kept the acreage at 2005 levels, and Jared said they’ll remain there for 2007.

Rising Costs

Jared is optimistic about the potato industry, but he’s watching costs carefully. As potato prices have found some stability, input costs have continued to rise.

“Fertilizer prices are the ones that are really going up,” he said. “That’s a huge concern right now.”

To fight the rising costs, Jared is looking to save money anywhere he can.

“We have to identify key areas that save money – always,” he said.

He installed GPS units in the machinery three years ago because it saves one or two passes in the field. GPS also could keep the rows straighter and keep the guess rows from being too wide or too tight.

Keeping the machinery running well could also help cut on-farm costs in the long run by eliminating doubled seed plantings or missed plantings. Jared also said he was focusing on fertilizer applications, since that’s a rising input. Variable speed pumps on the machinery would apply more fertilizer where it’s needed most and less where it’s not needed.

“They’re not huge differences, but those little efforts add up as time goes on,” Jared said.

In the packing shed, he’s added equipment to reduce labor costs. Washington has one of the highest minimum wages in the country, at $7.93 an hour. Annual increases are tied to inflation in the state, so the minimum wage goes up about 3 percent every year. That puts Washington at a competitive disadvantage to nearby states, including Idaho.

“The unfortunate thing is that it makes the payback on equipment a lot easier to justify,” Jared said. “That can be a good thing or a bad thing in the long run.”

Balcom and Moe has been fortunate to have many of the same employees return every year, Jared said. Some of the same workers have worked there more than 20 years. It also helps that the seasonal jobs last nine to 10 months of the year, so the workforce doesn’t move around as much.

Face of the Industry

Balcom and Moe’s success in the potato and fruit industries has helped make Jared the face of the industry in eastern Washington. The Washington State Department of Agriculture launched the Heart of Washington marketing campaign in 2001 to promote local products. Jared was selected to be one of nine local growers featured in ads run in newspapers across the state.

“It put a name and a face on the industry,” he said.

Jared is humble about the publicity and would never promote himself. But he is glad that consumers on the west side of Washington are more aware of growers in the eastern side of the state.

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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