A Love of Farming
Todd Gerratt plucks a few freshly dug Russet Burbanks from his field on a sunny October morning in southeastern Idaho’s Raft River Valley as diggers and trucks chug slowly and steadily down row after row.
“This year, our yields are good, about 425 sacks per acre. The state average is about 390,” Gerratt said.
Gerratt, 48, lives in nearby Declo and is the third generation to help run Ida-Gold Farms.
“Our dry winter and hot dry summer kept the quality down slightly. We didn’t have the deep soil moisture coming into spring, and spuds like 80° – not the 90° weather we had most of the summer,” Gerratt said.
A 10-minute drive from Interstate 15, Ida-Gold’s spud fields and cellars in Raft River are centrally located between two plants of their main client, Idahoan Foods Inc.
“We provide whatever Idahoan projects they’ll need and can ship easily to their plants to the north in Idaho Falls or to the south in Rupert,” Gerratt said of the company known for its hash browns and varied flavors of instant mashed potatoes.
“Every year is so different, so we’re flexible. I’ve grown as little as 600 acres and as many as 2,000 acres. Usually, we grow about 1,000 to 1,200 acres, either Russett Burbank, Ranger, Norkotah, Alturas, or Cal whites. Most of our crop goes to Idahoan, but we provide some for fresh pack, too.”
Gerratt said he’s addicted to farming, like his father and late grandfather. “It’s in our blood. Some days, I think we keep doing this because we like pain and banging our heads against a wall. Seriously though, we love all the challenges: fluctuations with marketing and commodity prices, weather changes, equipment repairs…. We thrive on being outdoors and working with people we care about. You can never predict what will happen, and there’s something different going on every day. There are good and bad days, like with any job.”
Gerratt’s late grandfather, Don Gerratt, started farming in 1939 south of Burley, passing the enterprise to his sons Larry, who is Todd’s dad, and Rex who started Ida-Gold Farms in 1960. Larry ran the farm, while Rex managed the dairy.
“Dad is 74, and Rex is 76, and they both still help every day. They couldn’t survive if they weren’t still involved,” Gerratt said. Todd has managed the farm operation since 1988, while his cousins oversee the dairy.
As the third generation came back, they expanded and started Midway Dairy near Raft River and began growing enough alfalfa hay and grain to feed their 6,000 cows at the dairy and 6,000 replacement heifers. The waste from the dairy is composted and much of it is applied to the potato fields to retain soil moisture.
To supervise their 100 employees, the Gerratts, who are general partners in the family business, meet every Tuesday at 1 p.m. “to make a plan for another week. We’re so spread out over 70 miles, so we don’t always see each other for another week. Our fields are south of Burley, north of Paul and in the Raft River area.”
To keep the farm running as efficiently as possible, Ida-Gold is expanding into an existing trucking company and a precision fertilizer application business along with their joint venture partners Schaeffer Farms, Jones Farms and Circle G Farms.
“We swap equipment, land and employees. Tractors and other equipment have become so expensive to buy that we maximize their use by putting trucks, equipment, and employees wherever they’re needed.”
Gerratt said he has always gravitated to new ideas to keep production as high as possible on their spud fields, 4,000 acres of alfalfa, 1,000 acres of grain and 2,000 acres of corn.
“Technology fascinates me. It may be expensive to implement, but in the long run it saves money and increases production. I have a photo of grandpa plowing with a team of horses. He would probably shake his head in amazement at all the changes since then. I grew up driving tractors without cabs. Today, tractor cabs are heated and cooled and have a touch-screen computer, so you can program it to run with GPS coordinates.”
In his fields, Todd has implemented zone soil sampling, installed weather stations, put in pumps with variable speed frequency drives and is switching to low pressure pivots.
“With the zones, we’re doing 10 to 15 soil samples instead of a general blanket sample and applying fertilizer at varying precise rates, depending on soil type,” he said.
Fifteen years ago, he hired a company to install weather stations in his fields to track temperature, wind speed, soil moisture and humidity.
“We use that information to manage irrigation, to track water usage, and watch phenology models to help track such things as insects, blight, and other potato diseases.”
To apply water effectively, he is switching to low pressure pivots to adjust for the hills. He also installed pumps with variable speed frequency drives to use electricity efficiently and to keep water pressure even.
Besides embracing technology, Gerratt and his wife, Brenda, have a family tradition of inviting younger generations to leave the farm for at least five years to earn a degree or learn a trade.
“It’s good to work with others and see how they do things differently than we do,” said Gerratt, who left the farm for seven years to study electronics and was an apprentice electrician. “We’ve all grown up working on the farm.”
Gerratt’s son Jake, 26, who was enrolled at Idaho State University in Pocatello, is licensed to do soil grid sampling and nutrient management planning for dairy cows.
Jake, who said he knew he would always come back to the farm, grins at the family rules. “Around here, you have to be invited back and better have something to contribute. I started my own business, doing soil sampling for the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. When you do come back, at first you have to do general labor, like being a clod picker at spud harvest. If I wouldn’t be farming here, I’d do it some other place,” he said.
Gerratt’s daughter, Lyndsie, 24, a radiology technician in Logan, Utah, feels the tug of home during harvest. “She always comes back because she says she likes the smell of the cellars,” Gerratt said. “She grew up in the dirt and raking and cutting hay.”
Every fall, the work pace at Ida-Gold is hectic. “It’s a case of hurry up and get done because we’re up against the weather,” Gerratt said while driving from the field to nearby cellars. “During winter from January to March, we relax a little and only work 40 hours a week. At our shops, we go through all our equipment and make repairs or reinforcements. That way, we’ll be ready for another year.”
By Dianna Troyer