Big Sky Communicator
United States Potato Board (USPB)
member Steve Cottom is a fourth
generation seed grower and has been
involved with Montana seed potato production
for over 40 years. Great-great grandparents
George and Elizabeth Cottom originally settled
in Idaho’s Lemhi Valley in 1881. Their son,
Morse Cottom, started raising potatoes in the
1920s and earned a reputation for quality seed
potato production. Morse died of tick fever in
1930, and his son Philip took over the operation.
In the early 1930s, in search of better soil, Philip,
along with Phillip’s father-in-law, William Irvine,
moved their farming operations over the mountains
to Montana’s Beaverhead Valley, near Dillon.
Today Steve, his wife Cathy and his brother Dave,
oversee the farming operations.
Cottom Seed produces about 500 acres of seed
potatoes, specializing in Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet,
Norkotah Russet and Rio Grande Russet varieties.
Because of the farm’s remote locale, staying
connected and informed within the potato industry
is a priority for Cottom.
“The USPB creates connections with the industry,”
Cottom said. “I’ve only been a board member for a
few years, and I’ve only been to a few meetings, but
this exposure has increased my awareness of just
how involved the USPB really is in a lot of facets
within the industry.”
“With online tools and websites, the
USPB works very hard maintaining industry
connections. This is how I stay informed. I
like receiving USPB e-mail newsletters and receiving the weekly potato recipe from www.
potatogoodness.com. It’s fantastic for people to
receive all of those potato menu ideas.
“As Montana’s sole USPB representative, it also
makes my job easier to inform fellow growers about
the board and what it provides to them. By forwarding
potato recipes to my neighbors, I can start up
dialogues with them about the USPB. It’s a nice,
easy way to have a conversation about the industry
and my involvement without being too pushy.”
Cottom said the 2012 season started with a warm,
dry spring resulting in an early start to planting.
“We didn’t have any rain delays and the crop was
planted in good time,” Cottom said.
The outlook looked good following the early
planting. However, severe weather in June with high
temperatures and strong winds combined to create
environmental stress that eventually impacted tuber
counts, particularly the Russet Burbanks.
“Our tuber counts were about half of normal for
the russets,” Cottom said. “The others were okay but
a little bit off from normal. It seemed to be an issue
with everybody in southwest Montana.”
Cottom said that this year’s crop is down in
tonnage compared to the 2011 crop. He said that the
crop won’t grade as well due to increased oversize
because of the small sets.
“Harvest went good. The quality looks good.
We were finished by the third of October which is
about as early as we’ve ever finished,” Cottom said,
“just perfect weather, very little wind, which is
unusual for us.
“We’ve always produced russeted varieties.
It’s what our business has been, and it’s what our
customers demand,” Cottom said, “Rangers for
processing, Norkotahs for fresh production and
Russet Burbank as a dual purpose potato for fresh
“The Rio Grande Russet is a real pretty variety in
our area. The Colorado industry grows a fair amount
of them, and they have a real white flesh, nearly
perfect shape and not much issue with hollow heart
or brown spot. They cook up nice, and we like to eat
them,” Cottom said.
Cathy agrees with her husband’s culinary assessment.
“Rio Grandes are my favorite,” she said. “They are
very forgiving and work in most recipes. They hold
together well in soups and stews. For us, they are our
picture perfect potato.”
Cottom serves on the board of the Montana
Potato Improvement Association (MPIA). In 2011
he was the MPIA president, an organization his
grandfather, Philip, helped establish.
“On the USPB, I’m appreciative to be a seed grower
working among a lot of commercial growers,” Cottom
said. “I have an opportunity to represent the seed
producer’s perspective, and help the commercial growers I associate with understand the challenges we face with variety The entire methodology of who
should be developing these varieties and determining
their usefulness needs to change.”
When a promising variety is selected, the seed sector
then grows it out, cleans it up, does virus and disease
testing in the field, investing a lot of time, money and effort
to produce G2 or G3 seed stock deliverable to the grower.
By the time this seed is made available, for
whatever reason or issue that has risen during this
long process, the industry may no longer want it.
This, after the seed sector has already spent tens of
thousands of dollars in its development.
“Everybody is looking for that magic bullet variety,”
Cottom said. “The variety selection process needs to
initiate from the other direction. In my mind, it really
does need to come from the consumer. This is where
the USPB can be of some help.”
Cottom effectively represents the interests of
the Montana seed industry on the USPB. He gives
an update on USPB activities and resources each
November at the MPIA annual seed seminar.
“I just want everyone to know these resources are
available for all,” he said. “Effective communication is
important for any organization, and especially for the
USPB. They really are one common voice for the industry,
increasing the demand and consumption of potatoes.”
By David Fairbourn, manager, industry communications & policy, with the U.S. Potato Board