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Land of Opportunity

Land of Opportunity

As the fading glow of twilight gave way to night and vaporous layers of mist descended on the freshly harvested potato field, Dan Chin drove his truck across the field to check on the final load of Yukon Golds for that day's harvest out of the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Chin credits his family's success in the Klamath Basin to the persistence of his grandfather, Sam Wong, which resulted in eventually settling his family in the northern California town of Tulelake during the 1930s.

Wong immigrated to the United States from China in 1914. In those days, a Chinese immigrant needed a sponsor to enter the United States. A man with the surname of Chin sponsored Wong, so he gave his children the same surname. Upon arriving in the United States, Wong began growing potatoes in the Stockton delta area, only to go broke after a few years.

Following his initial failure, Wong moved his family to Fallon, Nev., in the 1920s, to take advantage of a new federal project. He attempted to clear the land of sagebrush and grow potatoes, only to lose his crop to nematodes. He then moved his family to Alturas, Calif., and opened a Chinese restaurant. During this time, a salesman told him about the success farmers were having growing potatoes in the Klamath Basin.

Back to potatoes
"Being the potato farmer that my grandfather was, he wanted to go to Klamath to grow potatoes," Chin said. "So, he ran his restaurant a couple of years down there (in Alturas) and came up to grow some potatoes in Klamath."

Eventually, Wong sold the restaurant and moved his family to the Klamath Basin area and found the success growing potatoes that had eluded him during his two previous attempts.

"He always said the U.S. was the land of opportunity," Chin said. "He had it in his mind that he was going to come over and raise potatoes."

Wong bought some farmland and began his own potato growing operation, calling it Sam Wong and Son. George Chin, Wong's son and Dan's father, began working Wong at that time.

All it took was being in the right place at the right time for Wong to become a successful potato farmer, and the Klamath Basin proved to be just that place. His business grew faster than he could grow potatoes, and to meet demand Wong began buying potatoes from other growers and bagging and shipping them to the West Coast.

Soon enough, Wong was shipping potatoes to a produce house in Sacramento that was operated by a fellow Chinese businessman named Chang. Chang was a man Wong had met either on his voyage to the United States or when he first arrived. The business would eventually become General Produce, a major distributor throughout the Bay area. Wong Potatoes continues to sell potatoes and onions to the enterprise.

Continuing the tradition
In 1999, Dan Chin bought the farming operation and packing shed operation from his father, changing the name from Sam Wong and Son to Wong Potatoes Inc.

Today, at the age of 85, George continues to oversee the trucking operation, and up until 2010 he continued to drive long-haul loads.

He farms about 4,000 acres of ground between Oregon and California. He owns about one-third of the acreage and leases the remainder.

Chin estimated that he leases about 1,500 acres in the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. It's a unique arrangement administered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) through the Kuchel Act of 1964, whereby USBR leases about 17,000 acres for agricultural use in the Tule Lake NWR, the Lower Klamath NWR and the Upper Klamath NWR.

The growing season in the Klamath Basin area is short, about 100 days to 120 days, Chin said, but he sees that as an advantage because it limits pest problems for growers.

Another big advantage for growers is the soil in the Klamath Basin.

"The Tule Lake area is an old lake bottom," Chin said, "so it's high in organic matter, very rich soil around the edges. It's very nice soil for potato production. We're pretty flat as far as the contour of the ground; not a lot of low spots where you get drainage problems."

Growers throughout the area use an above-ground, solid-set irrigation system that keeps the plants wet and provides short-term, overnight protection from a potential frost.

Water is always a critical issue; either there's too much or not enough. In the Klamath Basin, the water issue is compounded by the Endangered Species Act, which requires enough water in the Upper Klamath Lake for the Lost River sucker and the shortnose sucker, and enough water to release downstream for salmon migration to the Pacific Ocean in the fall.

"We're caught between those competing interests," Chin said.

Add to the equation plans by PacificCorp to decommission four lower dams with their hydroelectric turbines on the Klamath River to improve the salmon fisheries, and you have not only a highly politicized fight between proponents and opponents of dam decommissioning but questionable water storage capacity as well as low-priced power rates.

Relying on sufficient snowpack accumulation is a gamble, so growers have been drilling into the aquifer during the past 10 years. With water levels beginning to show signs of depletion, Chin and other growers have been moving some of their operations to where they can find a guaranteed water source, sometimes 50 miles away.
Chin and his wife, Deedee, have been married for 37 years. They have three children, Nathan, Kara and Danny, and four grandchildren.

Along with potatoes, Chin grows onions for the dehy process industry, red and white wheat and dairy-quality alfalfa.

He names off about a dozen different potato varieties that he grows for the fresh-pack market: "Variety wise, we do Red Modoc, Dark Red Norland, Yukon Gold, Norkotah, Purple Majesty. On the fingerling side, we do French Fingerling, Ruby Crescent, Russian Banana, Purple Fiesta and AmaRosa. Then we do a baby white potato called a Klamath Pearl, which is a very great tasting potato."

During the past eight years, Chin's operation has been increasing its organic potato production from 10 percent in 2003 to nearly 75 percent in 2011.

"The whole West Coast is really good for us between San Diego and Seattle, and there are a lot of people who like organics and are willing to pay the difference," Chin said.

Chin is seeing an increasing demand for organic potatoes, not only from the West Coast but from throughout the United States - and even from Pacific Rim countries.

"We're actually sending a load to Taiwan, Malaysia and Hong Kong," he said. "It's interesting that they're looking at organic potatoes."

Wong Potatoes is a member of the Klamath Basin Fresh Direct LLC (KBFD). A cooperative venture with 17 shareholders, KBFD organized in 2000 as a means to compete with bigger companies.

Chin cited Klamath Pearl, Purple Fiesta and AmaRosa as varieties that the co-op has been successfully marketing.

He said they were doing demos last fall with the Purple Fiestas in the Portland area, following recent publicity of high anti-oxidant values in colored potatoes. The demonstrators reported that shoppers expressed a huge interest in the purple potatoes.

"It's pretty amazing what people pick up. They want to eat healthy, and they want products that are healthy for them," Chin said.

One of the lessons Chin picked up from his father was to work hard and play hard.

"The biggest thing I learned from dad was, ‘Always get your work done first.' We worked hard, and we still do, but we take time to play," he said.

Bill Schaefer, Managing Editor

Originally posted Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012

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