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Water, family drive Oregon seed grower to keep his operation small

Oregon’s Klamath Basin is known for fertile soil in the semi-arid desert. Potato production in the area isn’t affected much by late blight or Colorado potato beetle, but water is probably the biggest issue for growers.

In 2001, the federal government cut off water from Klamath Lake, and Gavin Rajnus, 33 years old at the time, was thrust to the front of a protest movement. In the years since, water has continued be an issue in the region and on Rajnus’ farm.

The Rajnus’ seed-growing operations were started in 1949 by Rajnus’ grandfather, Laddie, whose father emigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1911. Laddie’s two sons, George and Donald, formed Rajnus Brothers Seed in 1980. The company hand-cut all of its seed to ensure quality tubers, although the process is slower and costlier.

Gavin Rajnus graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Oregon State University in 1991 and managed the seed company with his cousin, George Jr., for almost 10 years. But four years ago, the cousins decided to go their separate ways. George Jr. wanted to grow more chip stock, and Gavin wanted to focus on table stock and keep the operation small.

“I didn’t have any desire to grow the business,” Gavin said.

He now farms 400 acres in Malin, in the Klamath Basin. Three years ago, he stopped hand-cutting his seed because laborers were hard to find. He has one year-round employee, compared to the 10 to 12 employees it would take to hand-cut the seed potatoes. Although he said hand-cutting is his preferred method, he now uses a machine to cut the seed.

“If you have a good, clean lot, then it does a pretty good job.”

Rajnus grows Russet Norkotah Selection 3 on 80 of his 400 acres, which he irrigates with two wells. He keeps a longer rotation than many growers, but that keeps his size down and reduces his water needs. He’ll grow seed potatoes in a field for one year, followed the next year by red wheat. That field will then lay fallow for four or five years before he plants seed potatoes in it again.
He buys second-generation seed from an Idaho seed grower and sells the third-generation tubers mostly to local potato growers.

The demand for the Norkotahs has been steady locally, but production of the variety has been increasing in Idaho. Gavin doesn’t actively market his seed beyond his local area, but he is always on the lookout for growers in the area who might want to plant Norkotahs.

“Twenty years ago, the buyer list was a couple of pages long,” he said. “Now, there’s maybe only 20 names on it.”

Rajnus farms the land with his wife, Erin, and their two children: Page, 9, and Ty, 10. He said his son, Ty, likes to work with him and may want to take over the operation some day. Rajnus said the industry has seen hard times, and he’s not sure he wants his kids to go into the potato business.

“I don’t really know if that would be a smart thing or not,” he said. “I’ll encourage them either way.”

Rajnus is content with his small operation and doesn’t miss the spotlight he was under in 2001. At times, he thinks the industry is getting too big and should follow his lead.

“I think everyone should just have their 80 acres and that’s all. They’d have more time to relax, and have more time to spend with their families.”

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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