Big Sky Communicator

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. 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

and processing.


“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

Originally posted Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012