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A voice for the industry

A voice for the industry

High up in northern California's Klamath Basin, near Tulelake, Calif., Sid Staunton farms with his brothers Marshall and Ed as part of Staunton Farms Inc. Sid is currently serving his fourth year as a United States Potato Board (USPB) board member. He has spent two years on the administrative committee for both Domestic and international marketing. This is his second year on the executive committee, serving as chairman of the finance committee last year, and now serving as co-chair of the industry communications and policy committee.

"My grandfather, Web Staunton, a World War I veteran, made an application on a 60 acre homestead near Tulelake in 1929," Staunton said. "He first came to the area in the 1920s and was attracted to the sporting opportunities and waterfowl hunting. The homestead program provided him an opportunity in the Klamath Reclamation project."

The first potatoes were planted on the farm in 1934. In 1958, Sid's father, John Staunton, took over the management at Staunton Farms. John was the backbone of the farming operation for many years. His experience with growing crops and farming in the Klamath Basin region of northern California has been invaluable. During the 1980s, sons Marshall, Sid and Ed took over the day-to-day farming operations.
Sid Staunton attended the University of Nevada, Reno, Nev., and graduated with a degree in agricultural economics. In 1980, He was completing his third year of employment, working in the trust department of the Security Bank of Nevada.

"I was actually planning to begin a career as a financial planner, and then one day, Marshall called and offered me the chance to return to the farm," Staunton said. "My uncle was retiring and potatoes were selling at $11 per cwt. The cost of production at that time was $2.45 per cwt., and my brother didn't want me to lose the opportunity to return to the family farm. I had just spent three years in an office with over one 100 employees, so this opportunity to get back to the farm, to work outside and be with and raise my family appealed to me."

Staunton decided to return and, today, with his two brothers, Staunton Farms is very much a family farm. He confides finding the greatest joy in being outdoors, working on a tractor planting and harvesting the crops.

"The Klamath Basin is located on the eastern edge of the Cascade Range and the western edge of the Great Basin and despite farming in California, we probably have the harshest production climate in the entire United States," Staunton said. "Because we are on a high plateau next to the Pacific Ocean, we average five frosts, but as many as 20 frosts in some years. These can occur during any given month of the year and contributes to a 100 to 110 day growing season, and it makes producing quality potatoes a challenge.

"On the positive side, our disease pressure tends to be light due to the harshness of the climate, and our potatoes have good quality due to the cool night time temps and lake bottom soils of sand; clay; peat and volcanic ash. Growing organic potatoes in the Klamath Basin is a favorable venture because of minimal late blight pressure when compared with other production regions across the country. Chip potatoes have increased due to quality in this area and now make up over 50 percent of local potato production. Conversely, some diseases like rhizoctonia are more severe in cooler climates."

Staunton Farms produces 1,000 acres of potatoes for tablestock - 800 acres of conventionally grown Russet Norkotahs and Russet Burbanks. Two hundred acres of organic Russet Norkotahs, Klamath Pearls and some purple and red varieties are growing this year and marketed with Klamath Fresh Direct. Wheat, barley, alfalfa and peppermint are grown in rotation with 700 acres of process onions under contract.

Staunton is the president of Cal-Ore Produce Inc., a family farm business of five grower/shippers in the Klamath Basin since 1978. Cal-Ore Produce packs and ships 1.2 million cwt. of tablestock potatoes 12 months a year.

"Our grower acreage base is 2,300 acres, and we pack and ship over 4,000 truckloads of quality product annually," Staunton said. "The conventional tablestock supplies retail markets mainly in northern California as locally grown produce. The organics supply retailers like Whole Foods and Trader Joes, as well as farmer's market cooperatives in the region. Due to our proximity, it's easy to ship in six hours to markets in San Francisco and Sacramento. We are the locally grown, fall crop potatoes for the California market." Staunton Farms also runs his specialty organics through Wong Potato Co. under a group of growers that make up Klamath Fresh Direct.

As a producer, Staunton Farms is a conscientious land steward, and values the care and management of the agricultural resources they have been entrusted with. Over the years, they've developed an ingenious method for fallowing their cultivated land, which also provides wetland habitat for birds and wildlife working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, NRCS, the local resource conservation district and the Tulelake Irrigation District.

"Because our farm basically sits on an ancient lakebed, we created a wetland restoration project to rest our land and replenish our soils," Staunton said. "On fields previously farmed, we push up dikes or berms, and flood these enclosed fields with water. In this way, we are resting our fields - turning our ag lands into wetlands.

"We'll leave the fields in this state for as long as three years, and it produces a tremendous marshland response. Area waterfowl and wildlife benefit, and somehow, this process creates a refurbished soil which is quite vigorous and productive in the following years when we bring this fallowed ground back into crop rotation. It also is an excellent way to move land to organic status," he said.
Because of this "rotating wetlands" program, Staunton Farms received a 2008 National Potato Council Environmental Stewardship Award.

Staunton and brothers, Marshall and Ed, have each served as board members on USPB. Marshall served on the administrative committee in the 1990s, and Ed served six years and was on the executive committee in 2007, co-chairing the first industry communications and policy committee, the committee Staunton is currently co-chairing.

"Where would the U.S. potato industry be without the USPB?" Staunton said. "The USPB takes each regional industry perspective and channels these into one unified effort. The retail table-stock, nutrition, chip-stock, dehy, frozen and seed programs have created a tremendous tool box for the industry, and those who have invested the time and effort applying these learnings to their own businesses have improved their marketing on so many levels.

"'What's the USPB doing for me?' seems to be a universal question which can best be answered by individual action and involvement. A grower does not need to be a super-shed or a mega-farm in order to formulate a very effective business plan applying USPB market research and learnings to their organization," Staunton said.

Staunton credits USPB for taking a small budget and creating values, relationships, partnerships, communications and the platform representing all of the industry's efforts to increase demand for potatoes and potato products.

"The research and nutrition findings the USPB has accomplished serves the whole industry, the same information from one production area carries less weight compared to unification provided by the USPB. The USPB response to the low-carb diets is a great example because these had a huge impact on consumers' perceptions of potatoes; with the healthy potato and ‘Potatoes...Goodness Unearthed,' this trend has been halted, and consumers see potatoes in a more favorable light." he said. "The future of the US potato industry is reliant on an active and informed body of growers and shippers.

"As individuals, we need to get beyond the ‘What's in it for me?' attitudes and work together for the common good for the industry as a whole. The USPB has answers and solutions. All one has to do is become informed and contact the USPB either by phone or on the website. Who knows, if you get involved you maybe on a trade mission to Vietnam, the chip committee, looking for solutions on the domestic marketing committee or be involved on the international marketing committee.

"The opportunities are available for all potato growers. What is there to lose? We have many grower leaders who make great, industry-minded sacrifices, and while their voices may be representative of their industry segment or growing region, they are rarely self-serving."

Staunton also recognizes the U.S. potato industry as a good model for fostering relationships and developing respect and understanding. It's those who participate who help shape and develop the big voice representing the responses and direction of the industry.

Originally posted Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010

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