Strength in Generations
It's an all-in-the-family operation for Bruce Heersink in Colorado's San Luis Valley. Sitting at the wheel of his potato harvester, Heersink guides the machine through one of his fields during the last week of August.
It's a crystal clear, blue-sky afternoon when he began this afternoon shift following a break for lunch. This field, a 60-acre half circle, is just a few miles north of Monte Vista, the county seat of Rio Grande County.
From the air-conditioned comfort of the harvester's cab you have an unimpeded 360-degree view of this agricultural oasis. The San Louis Valley is an alpine valley, 45 miles wide and 96 miles in length with an average elevation of 7,500 feet above sea level. To the distant east rise the Sangre de Christo mountains and almost equidistant to the west the San Juan mountains reach up to touch the azure blue sky.
While Bruce is picking up potatoes and leaving a dust cloud in his wake, a mile and a half south his father, Ron, and Bruce's two sons, Austin, 15, and Mason, 10, are back at the sheds helping get the crop into storage.
The 42-year old Heersink reckons that he has been working in the potato fields with his father and his grandfather since he was 15 or 16. He represents the third generation of his family to be farming in the San Luis Valley.
Heersink oversees two farms, H and H Farms and La Rue Farms. The former he started with his brother Shon but now he is the sole proprietor, and has taken over the latter with his father's retirement.
Combining the two operations, Heersink estimates there is about 1,200, total farmable acres and about 1,600 total acres in the two. Heersink grows seed and fresh market potatoes, splitting the two markets at about 40 percent seed and 60 percent commercial. His rotation crops include barley, canola and lettuce. He's done wheat in the past and depending on which commodity looks stronger this coming spring, might return to wheat.
He moves a lot of his commodities through Rio Grande Commodities and he grows canola for John Van Damme.
Last season he grew Russet Norkotahs selection line 3, Canella Russet and Blazers. He's contemplating adding Russet Classics to the mix.
He likes the Classics because, "they come out of the Tri-State breeding program, they have a real high percentage of U.S. No. 1s, and they're a medium to early maturing potato and it's a multi-use potato," Heersink said.
Heersink said that he markets his seed through magazine advertising, the Colorado seed directory and the Internet, but he has also found that the old-school, knocking on doors is sometimes the best method of salesmanship.
"We'll take trips in the summer and go see customers that we've had in the past," he said. "A lot of times it's good ¬- a face-to-face meeting and a handshake goes a long way still with certain people."
Heersink said that his average yield of this harvest, depending on the variety, was between 390 to 425 sacks per acre.
"I would consider this to be one of our better growing season," he said. "Almost no early season frost and where I'm at we had very little hail damage. It was a better than average growing season."
Heersink sounded cautiously, optimistic about his financial prospects for this year.
"I think the market for this coming season, it has the potential to hold to a better than average return this year," he said. "It has all the potential for that to happen if everybody in the United States and the major potato growing states uses a common sense approach to marketing their potatoes this year, I think farmers should make a little profit."
He expressed mild frustration with the current trend line for domestic potato consumption and believes that U.S. growers need to look to international markets and expand their business.
One of the looming concerns across the San Luis Valley is groundwater and surface water rights and protection of the diminishing aquifer.
"The bottom line is whether you like it or not or whether you have enough water or you're going to have to buy some water, the simple fact is that we've got to protect the aquifer that we have here," Heersink said. "If we don't do something, I think there is a real possibility with low snow levels and continued farming operations we would have dried it up."
Heersink said that his farms rely on a combination of surface water rights, canal water, river water and groundwater.
When it comes to traceability and Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) regulations Heersink uses field consultants Wilbur Ellis and Agro Engineering and a third party.
Agro Engineering monitors Heersinks irrigation systems, making sure they're putting out correct patterns and flows along with field moisture and diseas scouting.
Heersink said that Wilbur Ellis came in this past year offer field consulting in correlation with their fertilizer and chemical products. He also relies on them for traceability issues regarding their fertilizer and chemical uses.
"By maintaining our own records, plus Wilbur Ellis and this third party we're using to maintain alloour GAP records it hasn't been as big of an irritation as one might think. It's, it's just the way it is," Heersink said. "You've just got to get used to it and do it as efficiently as you can."
He enjoys farming and loves the land, the area and sees a positive potential for the future years, if managed adroitly.
"I've been blessed to be given an opportunity to be right here," he said. "I wouldn't want to grow up anywhere else. Having the opportunity that my grandpa and dad left me, working for myself and raising my kids in this kind of environment, I'm as happy as can be."
"The potato futures, we're all in control of it ourselves," he said. "We've got to make sure that we keep our plantings in check and try not to over produce for what the markets call for."
"I think the farming industry, I think it holds a bright future. You do have to watch your overhead, just keep going with it, that's all there is to it. I wouldn't do anything different, that's for sure," Heersink said.
Photos by Bill Schaefer