From the time he was big enough to stand on a milk crate and grade potatoes, John Christoffel “Stoffel” Probasco has been involved with potatoes on his family’s farm in Chesterfield, N.J.
“I’ve been working on the farm since I was 6 or 7,” said Probasco, 38. “I’m particularly grateful for my family and the opportunities I’ve been provided.”
A former United States Potato Board (USPB) board member, Probasco has just concluded his sixth year of service to the U.S. potato industry. For two years, he served as the USPB’s finance chairman. Probasco was also a member of the USPB’s Administrative Committee’s Domestic Marketing Committee before ascending to the Executive Committee.
“Farming, and especially potatoes, can be a very prohibitive industry to get into,” he said. “It’s very difficult to just start out on your own, but the future of this industry relies on the rising generation of new growers to take responsibility and lead.
“The current generation continues to age, and with them goes the industry’s wisdom and experience. While there is time, the rest of us need to learn and observe.”
Though Probasco still has a long farming career ahead of him, he has already amassed nearly a lifetime of experience and potato industry perspective in New Jersey. He manages Probasco Farms, LLC, where his father, Chris Probasco, is still actively involved.
Generations of Probascos
Since the 1650s, Probascos have been growing potatoes in the British colonies and then the United States, with 12 generations of growers in the family’s pedigree:
• Christoffel (1703-1778)
• Abraham (1737-1806)
• Christopher (1769-1845)
• Jacob (1808-1875)
• John (1849-1914)
• Charles aka C.B. (1881-1958)
• John (1916-1997)
• John Christopher (1944-)
• John Christoffel (1974-)
“I know that ‘sustainability’ is a popular buzzword,” Probasco said. “My family’s history surely demonstrates the sustainability of the potato industry.
“My great-grandfather, C.B. Probasco was the largest grower in New Jersey when the state was growing between 70,000 to 80,000 acres of potatoes. Today, there are roughly 10 commercial-sized growers.”
Probasco describes how the New Jersey potato industry went through a time of rigorous attrition. He remembers attending lots of potato farm auctions during the 1980s and 1990s with his family.
“Those were pretty lean times, and we lost a lot of great growers,” he said. “Now all of us that are left can sit down at one table, but things look a lot more positive for those of us who are still here.
“We have more opportunities, and we owe this to the kind of work the USPB and state organizations have carried out in dispelling the myths about potatoes and responding to the negative attitudes about their nutrition.”
Opportunities in chippers
At one time a grower and shipper of fresh potatoes, Probasco Farms made the switch to chipping potatoes in the early 1990s. There are countless chip processing companies within a four-hour drive of their farm. Atlantics, Pikes and Beacon Chippers are the round white chipping varieties Probasco grows. He also plants corn, wheat, soybeans and pumpkins as rotation crops, using spinach as a double crop behind the potatoes.
“Growing chipping potatoes has enabled us to compress our harvest time,” Probasco said. “We supply directly from our fields to the chip processors, because we are digging in tremendous heat. Chipping potatoes are not without their problems, but our opportunities are better now.
“We supply chipping potatoes to many regional companies that are fairly strong like Herrs, Wise, and Snyders of Hanover through E.K. Bare and Sons brokerage. We also supply Utz directly and ship to Frito-Lay through a partnership with Black Gold Farms.”
Building better varieties
In his post-USPB years, Probasco plans to get involved with the USPB Chip Committee. He supports how the USPB sustains each industry sector. A good example, he said, is the chip committee, which he hopes will help develop better varieties.
“Historically, potato varieties don’t come along that offer much change or improvement to the market,” he said. “Hopefully, the way potato breeding is done today will expedite this.
“It’s important work for taste and health reasons, but also, if the chip companies we supply are not happy with any of the new varieties, I can’t grow them.”
As a USPB Executive Committee member, Probasco attended and participated in the “Menu Innovations with Potato Seminar” at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Napa Valley, Calif. The two-day seminar brings together America’s top chefs to create healthy potato dishes.
“The CIA Potato Seminar has been a great experience,” Probasco said. “Seeing how chefs from around the country create new and exciting menu items for restaurants is amazing. This may seem relatively small, but the dollar value of chefs is high. This is also significant because restaurant patrons love trying to replicate their favorite dishes from restaurants.”
Probasco has enjoyed his time on the USPB.
“As an Executive Committee member, you see so much, and this has definitely been a rewarding experience, getting to know other potato growers from across the country,” he said. “It’s very important for farmers to have these networking opportunities — getting out and seeing the rest of the world and learning how others deal with their problems and successes. The USPB Executive Committee members tend to bond well and develop special connections.
“Most growers are very supportive and recognize the value of the USPB to the industry. Whether it’s an 80,000-acre operation spread across the country, or just a small farm in West Virginia, the USPB strives to give fair representation for all.”
--By David Fairbourn, manager, industry communications & policy, with the U.S. Potato Board
Photos by John Perry.