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Lessons from the Heartland

Lessons from the Heartland

When you think of Indiana, potatoes aren't the first thing that comes to mind, Basketball, maybe - Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson and John Wooden are all products of the Hoosier state.

If you're talking agriculture, then you're talking about corn and soybeans, but potatoes? Not likely. Not Indiana.

But there are potato growers in the Hoosier state - including the Vieck family of Vincennes, Ind. Vincennes is the county seat of Knox County, is the oldest city in Indiana and was the site of a major victory during the Revolutionary War in the Northwest territories in 1779 that nearly doubled the size of the original 13 colonies.

The Vieck family came over from Germany and began farming in Napoleon, Ohio, before moving to Indiana and settling in Knox County. Viecks have been farming in the Midwest for five or six generations, and have grown potatoes since 1954 when Joe Vieck and his father Chris planted their first potato crop.

Today, Hugh, 48, his brother Mark, 54, and Mark's son, Nicholas, 28, operate Chris Vieck Farms. Their 82-year old father, Joe, though retired, continues to work everyday, Hugh said.

"When my dad and his two brothers started farming together they incorporated in 1966 as Chris Vieck Farms name," Hugh said.

As each of the brother's families matured, they decided in 1977 to split the farm into thirds, "and they account for the three potato growers in this area," said Hugh.

All three grow chip potatoes. Chris Vieck Farms grows for a number of companies. Some of their stock will travel as far as Texas, Hugh said.

The farm supplies chipping stock to the Snyder's processing plant in Jeffersonville, Ind., and during the harvest the Viecks will truck the stock direct from their sorting shed to the plant 120 miles southeast of their farm.

There aren't many potato growers in Indiana, in fact when you check the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service for acres in production Indiana isn't listed.

"There's not enough to measure," Vieck said. "There used to be quite a few in northern Indiana and you have some of the companies, Walthers, Black Gold and some of those, they'll come in and they'll put some acres in Indiana just to hit that market window, and then they're gone."

The Viecks farm about 1,890 acres with 260 acres to 270 acres in potatoes annually. They grow Snowdens and Atlantics and get their seed out of Wisconsin.

"Everything that we grow is contracted before we plant it and if we don't have a contract for it, we don't plant," Vieck said, "and its always been that way for us."

They tried packaged potatoes in the past, with reds and russets but the russets didn't perform well in the heat and humidity of Indiana summers, so they decided to focus strictly on the chip sector.

"Everyone wants a russet anymore," Vieck said. "I mean you can't sell a round white like you used to, unless you're on the Eastern seaboard and what we can grow here very well is the round white."

But russets, even the Texas and Colorado strains, just don't do well in the Hoosier state, he said.

Vieck dismisses moving into either organics or specialty varieties.

"There's quite a few different specialties, but then you really have to develop that market, the Midwest is pretty much meat and potatoes," he said. "People are more scared of organic. They'd rather know where it came from and know it's a reputable person than to buy organic."

The advantage they enjoy in Indiana as a potato grower is part market window and part logistics, Vieck said. They harvest their potatoes during the end of July through the first weeks of August.

"We're right in between Missouri and Wisconsin on the chip potatoes. And then logistics is jut being able to ship to some of the plants farther south, saving some freight," he said.

Indiana is hot and humid during their harvest and Vieck said they have to move fast once they beginning harvest.

"We do not kill the vines, we'll dig green on the chip potatoes," Vieck said. "You have to do everything you can to minimize bruise and then normally from the time we harvest them with all that heat and humidity and the time they're made into chip is within 36 to 48 hours otherwise they start breaking down."

He estimates that in 2010 they averaged a little over 300 cwt., a higher yield than they normally see. He attributes the higher yields to the wet spring and cool nights.

Vieck said that types of land he farms varies quite a bit, from clay to river bottoms, blue muck to sandier, coarse soils that they put their potatoes into.

"We have every kind of soil you can imagine around here," Vieck said.

Even though Indiana normally receives plenty of precipitation, the Viecks rely on center pivot irrigation for all their vegetable crops.

"We grow all grain crops, we also grow watermelons," he said. "We've grown just about anything you can imagine. We used to be hooked up with Stokely and we used to grow some green beans. We've grown peas. We've grown pumpkins for them, sweet corn. We've dabbled in all the different specialty crops."

Vieck recognizes that their potato operation in Indiana is quite a bit different from the large-scale operations throughout the country but he enjoys going to national meetings to see what's new in the industry and to hear of the trends and new production practices. He served on the National Potato Council for six years and said that whenever you can bounce ideas off of someone it can open up opportunities.

He is making his plans for the 2011 season and predicts that acres will probably be down a little due to increasing grain prices but the Viecks will keep growing potatoes as long as they keep getting contracted.

"It looks to be a good year," Vieck said, "but you don't want to burn the contracts you have, just because of fluctuation in the grain market. Potatoes are more of a steady thing.

—Bill Schaefer, managing editor

Originally posted Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011

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