In the middle of spring planting, hail pings off the roof of Jim Tiede's shop and office, pelting his newly planted fields about eight miles west of American Falls in southeastern Idaho. A few wind gusts later, snowflakes replace the hail. He laughs and shrugs off the frigid weather that puts his planting two weeks behind schedule.
"It's all part of the equation of growing potatoes here," said the third generation farmer, who raises Ranger Russet and Russet Burbank potatoes for nearby processors Lamb Weston Inc. and the J.R. Simplot Co. "They'll make up for it later."
By autumn, his positive prediction of a strong growing season had come true.
"We had a great harvest. The Lord blessed us with a beautiful fall, and we got everything out of the fields with no frost," he said. "We're looking forward to having another good year, even though we're still faced with high fuel and fertilizer costs. We're hoping they'll moderate."
His 2011 potato contracts were about 8 percent higher than the previous year, but with high fuel prices, "it wasn't as good as we had hoped for," he said. "Fortunately, we had 24,000 gallons of fuel on hand from pre-paying in November 2010 after harvest, so that helped."
This coming year, he looks forward to serving as the Idaho Potato Commission chairman for a one-year term that began in September.
"We're hoping to get approval to increase the size of the Grown in Idaho seal on bags of potatoes, so it will be about 3 inches by 4 inches, a 50 percent increase," he said. "Studies have shown that consumers bought more potatoes when they saw a larger seal displayed. This year, we're also looking forward to celebrating the commission's 75th anniversary. We'll sponsor a football bowl in Boise."
While spring weather fluctuates year to year, Tiede's attitude never wavers. Like his grandfather and father, Jim, 55, has an optimistic, pioneering outlook while operating his century-old family farm.
"We've always been innovative and willing to be the first to jump into a nontraditional area, if an idea makes good business sense," said Tiede about irrigation methods, types of crops, and use of fertilizers and natural pesticides at Tiede Farms, where he grows 900 acres of potatoes (half Ranger and half Burbank), 800 acres of sugar beets, 1,100 acres of hard red spring wheat and 160 acres of corn for cattle.
"We're not risk-takers, but if we get an idea, we'll run the numbers, and if it makes sense, we'll try it. We're always looking for new opportunities," he said.
One of those opportunities was to grow feed corn.
"In 2000, I heard Nebraska farmers decided to grow potatoes, so I thought I'd grow corn that usually has to be shipped in here from Nebraska," Tiede said. "I talked to the county Extension agent, and we found several varieties that would grow here with our short season, so now we get about 200 bushels an acre and supply some local feedlots."
Tiede's late grandfather, John, and his dad, Otto, were looking for new opportunities when they began farming the Pleasant Valley's flat fields above the Snake River. The farm has grown from the 160 acres John homesteaded in 1908 to 3,000 acres and five full-time employees today.
"Dad was the second farmer out here to drill an irrigation well, back in 1949, and he was the first to put in irrigation pivots in 1976. Then I was the first to grow mustard as a green manure and feed corn for cattle," he said. "We always like to stay on the cutting edge of technology."
Tiede has passed on his willingness to embrace innovation to his 26-year-old son, Alex, who has been helping run the farm since 2006, when he graduated from the College of Idaho where he studied marketing and management.
"Alex is really sharp. A few years ago, he told me, ‘Dad, I ran the numbers, and you could buy your own semis and pay for them for what it costs to hire someone.' I wasn't comfortable with the risk, so he took the money from his share of the crop and bought semis in 2007. It's worked out great."
Alex said the trucks are needed year round.
"First, I bought an old semi and a used trailer, then I bought another one," he said. "In spring, I haul seed potatoes, then compost during summer to stockpile and spread on the fields later. Come fall, there's grain and spuds to haul and wheat in winter. It's worked out pretty well. We're basically paying ourselves instead of someone else."
Like John and Otto, Jim and Alex strive to make wise operating decisions to ensure the farm is profitable for future generations.
"Most farmers want that. I want the farm to be here for my grandkids and for them to talk about the good things ‘Grandpa Jim' did," said Jim, who received the National Potato Council's Environmental Stewardship Award in 2010.
The award is a component of the Pesticide Environmental Stewardship Program, a partnership between the NPC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to promote the safe use of pesticides. Jim was recognized for frequently monitoring and applying products when needed, using integrated pest management practices and alternative pest control methods, and protecting habitat and water, while maintaining yield and quality.
The sustainable farming practices he was recognized for are ones he has been doing for a decade or more - reducing erosion, planting shelterbelts, applying the least amount of fertilizer and herbicides at the best time - long before "sustainability" became an industry jargon.
To apply the precise amount of water and fertilizer, Jim contracts with Stukenholtz Laboratory.
"They send out two crop consultants to our fields twice a week to measure soil moisture, nitrogen levels and to monitor for bugs," he said. "Based on that information, we foliar feed the crop exactly what is needed when it's needed."
To reduce erosion, Jim planted a quarter-mile long shelterbelt along a sandy field near the Snake River about 15 years ago. About a decade ago, to help prevent runoff, he began planting grass in waterways and keeping fodder on the fields.
For the past 12 years, he has been relying on mustard to naturally control soil-borne pests.
"After I cut the wheat at the end of July, the mustard seed is flown over the fields, then we harrow it, so there's about an eighth-inch of soil covering it," he said. "By the first frost in September, it has grown chin-high, so we beat it down, then disk it under. The oil in the leaves is a natural nematicide."
Jim admires his grandfather's foresight and flexibility.
"Grandpa John came over from what would be modern Romania because there wasn't much land there left to farm," he said. "He was 16 at the time and hoped to settle in the Palouse Valley, but all the land was taken, so he came down here to homestead and eventually had a 1,000-acre dry farm."
The white farmhouse John built 89 years ago still stands.
"My dad grew up in it, and so did I," he said. "A few years ago, when Deb and I built a new house a mile away, Alex moved into it."
After Jim's dad, Otto, came back from serving a tour of duty in the South Pacific during World War II, he foresaw the future in irrigated farmland. He had an irrigation well drilled and hit water at 335 feet. With more water for crops, Otto bought another 1,000 acres. Sometimes he bought land from neighbors who didn't want to modernize and drill wells."
Jim began farming with his dad in 1975, after graduating with a diesel mechanics degree from Idaho State University and eventually put another 1,000 acres into production.
Lifestyle, not a job
To Jim and Alex, running Tiede Farms is more of an ideal lifestyle rather than a dreary occupation.
"I love it all because every day is different," Alex said. "I could never sit in an office and do the same thing day after day - it would be too monotonous. Here, unexpected stuff happens again and again with the weather, contracts, fuel, or mechanical breakdowns, but you take it day by day and move on."
Jim said he's not ready to retire but wouldn't mind giving more responsibility to Alex.
"In five years, I'd like to be able to take my foot off the throttle here and transition the farm to Alex," he said.
Alex laughed and said he doesn't see his dad ever fully retiring. "Grandpa is 86, and he still comes out to do this and that." Unlike his dad and grandpa, Alex doesn't plan to expand. "I don't want to get huge. I'm happy maintaining what we have."
Jim said regardless of the size of Tiede Farms, he plans to keep it in good shape for their daughters Jacqueline, Meredith and Erin and four grandchildren.
"We celebrated the farm's 100th anniversary in 2008 and want it to be in good shape for them to come back and enjoy," he said. "We still have as much water in our irrigation wells as when they were first drilled. When we put in the pivots, we had to change the pumps and checked the water depth. The water table was at its original level, so we'll be farming here another 100 years. We'll always maintain our water and soil quality."
— By Dianna Troyer, Spudman contributor