You could say that farming in the Red River Valley is in Justin Dagen's genes, and you wouldn't be far off the mark. If it's not in his DNA, then it's definitely in his blood. It also helps to explain his life-long dedication to the potato industry as he assumes the presidency of the National Potato Council for 2011.
For more than 125 years, Dagens have been farming in the Red River Valley of Kittson County in Karlstad, Minn. There, in the most northwest corner of Minnesota abutting North Dakota to the west and the Canadian province of Manitoba to the north, Dagens have been turning over the Minnesota flatlands for five generations that 11,500 years ago was the bed of glacial Lake Agassiz, the largest glacial lake in North America.
The soil in the Red River Valley is ideal for agriculture. It is composed of fine-grained, glacial-lake deposits combined with decayed organic materials that form well-textured, moisture retentive, yet well-drained soil.
In 1882, Justin Dagen's great-great grandfather, Albert, emigrated from Germany to Karlstad and started the family farm with 160 acres he got through the Homestead Act.
From 160 acres in 1882, Dagen Heritage Farms has grown to 2,000 acres in 2011, but Dagen's still farming some of the same ground his great-great grandfather first broke 129 years ago.
Dagen and his wife, Donna, have been married for 24 years. Theirs is a partnership that runs the farm.
"She doesn't drive trucks or tractors, but she has an incredibly important role in keeping the operation together," Dagen said.
They are the parents of two sons and two daughters. Oldest son Brooks, 21, is a senior at North Dakota State University majoring in mechanical engineering. Dagen likes to say that he's counting on Brooks to develop a high-speed, low-maintenance potato harvester.
Their daughter Kendra is a 19-year old college freshman at North Central University in Minneapolis. Sander, their 16-year old son, is a junior in high school, who loves to play basketball, hunt, fish and help on the farm. Then there's 7-year-old Jerica.
Along with his farming and family responsibilities, Dagen is an active participant in the Karlstad community. A member of the board at the Heritage Christian School, and he's on the township board and he referees basketball games, also. Karlstad's a community of 794, according to the 2000 census and the city slogan is "Moose Captial of the North."
As if all that isn't enough to keep him busy, Dagen was recently named the president of the National Potato Council this past January at the NPC meeting in Las Vegas, succeeding Roger Mix.
Dagen, 51, has been in charge of the family farm for 34 years. He found himself in the position at the age of 17, during his senior year in high school, when his father died of heart disease in 1977. His mother, Vernice, is alive and well.
"I grew up in a house with three sisters, so here I was a 17-year old kid with some warehouses full of seed potato, when I took over," Dagen said. "The Lord provided, it was a very good experience. I had been certainly part of the operation but it was a rather sudden, quick learning curve."
At the time that he took over the operation, he estimated that they were farming between 800 and 900 acres.
"It was a large production year (1977), so marketing had some challenges that year," he said. "In that phase of the farm, my father sold a high percentage of potatoes through brokers. Whereas now I sell 90-some percent direct. I go right to the growers and that has been one of the highlights. That is one of the things I really enjoy is a direct connection with the receiver," he said.
His is strictly a seed-growing operation, with 300 acres of seed potatoes, mostly fresh but some chip varieties. He grows Ivory Crisp, Dakota Crisp, Red Norland, Sangre, Gold Rush and Red Pontiac.
It's all certified and foundation seed. He ships a small amount to Pennsylvania but most of it is shipped to growers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota.
With the remaining 1,800 acres he grows sugar beets, corn, soybeans, spring and winter wheat and occasionally they'll grow edible beans.
Dagen said that he currently has between 12 and 14 major receivers and he tries to visit with each of them annually and he is frequently on the phone with them trying to keep informed on how their operations are performing.
It's a necessary aid in helping Dagen plan for the future of his operation.
"As a seed grower, I'm buying seed stock which isn't going to hit the market for four years but I'm having to make that decision today, so I just try and maintain a relationship with these guys that is mutually beneficial," he explained.
Over the past 34 years, he has seen a lot of changes in the potato industry. He mentioned technological innovations, environmental regulations but the biggest change he's seen is in the business acumen necessary to stay solvent.
"I would say that margins have narrowed. I just remember there was a lot less to keep track of back then. There's just an extreme number of details now, all of which must be watched very, very closely. There's just very little room to make mistakes compared to 30 or 40 years ago," he said.
Dagen has been involved with the NPC since 1996 when he joined the board of directors. He sees the role of the NPC as the unified voice for all legislative matters of the potato industry.
There are a number of issues facing the potato industry in 2011 and Dagen sees his role as NPC president to be more proactive in the ongoing discussions. Whether it is sustainability and traceability or the USDA rulings on the school lunch program and the Women, Infants and Children nutritional aid program.
"I think it's important for agriculture to be at the table so we're not on the menu, you might say," Dagen said. "I think it's just as important for agriculture, i.e., the National Potato Council to be in on the discussion so that sustainability is something that is really capable of producing high-value, high-quality food for our country."
Speaking of the recent ruling by the USDA that may limit certain vegetables, including potatoes, from school lunch menus, Dagen said that he and the NPC would continue to work to improve access to school lunch and the WIC program.
"We're going to continue to hammer away with the facts. The fact that potatoes are a nutritious part of this program that they do deliver quality nutrition with a very economical price tag were going to continue to hammer away with that message," he said.
He believes that the potato has been maligned over the past few years and that the industry was a little lax in responding to the attacks but now its time to take the offensive and spread the news that potatoes are a nutritious and economical of a daily diet.
"We're a little slow in getting an aggressive message out there but I really think with both the french fry and the fresh potato were going to cross the goal line. It may not happen next month it may not happen next year but we're going to keep at it," Dagen said.
He is nothing if not positive about agriculture in general and the direction of the potato industry specifically.
"I find myself in a funny position here as president of this group," Dagen said. "It's nothing I pursued but I enjoy being with potato people and working on problems and I'm proud of what the council has done the last 60 some years. I'm proud of our track record.
"The industry is much richer for having the potato council and now the potato board and the United group. I'm proud of the organization structure that we have within the potato industry in the United States."