Over the Rainbow
With fall harvest in full stride for R&G Potato Company, a rainbow arched over the company’s offices near American Falls in southeastern Idaho on a mid-September morning.
Glancing out the window of the office board room at the drizzle mingling with golden morning sunshine, Garn Theobald, chairman of the board of corporate operations, couldn’t help but grin at the timing of the symbol of hope and prosperity as he was preparing for retirement.
With nearly four decades of persistence and flexibility, Garn, 62, has weathered unpredictable tempests and basked in good fortune as the company expanded beyond Idaho to Arizona and New Mexico. He has helped guide R&G to become one of Frito-Lay’s largest North American suppliers of round white chipping potato varieties.
“At first, it was hard to persuade some farmers to even grow these,” Garn said. Garn and the late Ray DeRoche formed R&G in 1977 to provide chipping potatoes for Clover Club Foods.
“Farmers worried about spoilage because the potatoes should be stored at about 50° degrees instead of lower temperatures. But researchers formulated new varieties, and we developed techniques to extend the storage,” Garn said.
Ray’s and Garn’s powers of persuasion paid off. The company has grown significantly since it shipped 80,000 cwt. its first year. Today R&G, with 13 suppliers, ships 3.5 million cwt. of chipping potatoes annually to Frito-Lay and other regional snack companies. In all of its areas of production, R&G also has an annual supply of about 200,000-plus cwt. of oversize round white potatoes for fresh cut fry uses and about 250,000 cwt. of seed potatoes.
Framed plaques on the board room walls attest to R&G’s success with Frito-Lay. During the past 20 years, the company has been named Frito-Lay National Supplier of the Year five times and Western Supplier of the Year four times.
“Two years ago, we supplied every Frito-Lay plant in the West,” Garn said. “We can deliver to six different plants in the same day and ship as much as 50 semi-trucks a day.”
Executives in the potato chip industry found R&G in 1989 when severe drought reduced North Dakota chip potato yields.
“We had the largest excess of round whites in North America, so we had every snack maker in the country in our offices,” recalls Garn. “Here in Idaho, irrigation allows us to have a little more control over input.”
With eight key chip makers as steady customers and the future looking bright, Ray retired in 1991, and Garn’s brother Steve joined the company.
“I had business experience being an ag lender for 20 years and knew most of the growers already,” said Steve, 64, chief executive officer of corporate operations.
With the rainbow at their backs, the Theobalds drive south of American Falls to check on the harvest. With unseasonably high temperatures, digging was starting at 4 a.m. and ending at noon at Driscoll Brothers Farms (DBF), one of their suppliers.
Kevin Burgemeister, DBF farm manager, has worked with R&G more than 20 years. “We enjoy R&G’s personal approach and appreciate the individual level of communication and accessibility the company has shown Driscoll Brothers. They provide us the information and support needed to help make our operation successful,” Burgemeister said.
The Theobald brothers are no strangers to field work, having grown up in Shelley, about an hour north of American Falls.
“We didn’t live on a farm, but I started working in the potato fields when I was 9, like every other kid on our two-week harvest break,” recalls Garn. “We picked potatoes by hand and put them in baskets.”
When picking became mechanized, they feared the innovation would cost them their jobs. “It did, but that just put more acreage into production, and we found different jobs like running loaders,” Garn said.
Throughout his life, Garn has refused to let misfortune discourage him. After his sophomore year in college, he broke both legs on a summer logging job in Alaska. During his recovery, he met his future wife, Debbie, the company’s office manager for 31 years.
“We’ve been through a lot in this business,” Garn said of their 41-year marriage.
When Garn recovered, DeRoche hired him at Clover Club Foods.
“I was either in the office doing accounting or out in the fields driving a combine or harvester ’til midnight,” Garn said. “When Clover Club divested its farming operations, Ray suggested we form a company because they still needed potatoes.”
With R&G’s Idaho business established, an unforeseen opportunity arose to grow potatoes on Native American land in the Southwest.
“For years, we had been attending grower meetings with tribal agricultural leaders, so we all knew each other,” Garn said.
In 1992, leaders of the Ak-Chin Indian Community of the Maricopa Indian Reservation south of Phoenix agreed to produce chip potatoes on tribal land for R&G and its customers. Today, about 400,000 cwt. of potatoes are grown annually on 1,600 acres.
Seeing the success in Arizona, Navajo leaders in New Mexico asked R&G to lease their fields starting in 2003. The 4,000-acre Navajo Mesa Farms near Farmington, N.M., produces 1.6 million cwt. of Dakota Pearls, Atlantics and Frito-Lay varieties annually.
“We’re known for being honest, productive and a reliable employer,” Garn said. “Tribal members make up about 85 percent of our workforce at both places.”
After leaving the field, Garn and Steve drive north of American Falls to their shipping plant, built in 1989 adjacent to Union Pacific railroad tracks.
“With the siding here, we could load 10 to 15 rail cars per day if the market ever demanded it,” Steve said.
As employees stack bags of spuds, the earthy scent of fresh tubers mingles with the aroma of potatoes frying in a lab kitchen.
“We’ve had a lab for 26 years, long before it was required by Frito-Lay to test the glucose and sucrose levels,” Garn said of potatoes with low sugar content that produce light golden-colored chips when fried.
“You better know what’s coming out of your field,” said Steve, adding they’ve helped growers set up quality assurance programs during harvest and storage. With decades of expertise, R&G also provides consulting in marketing, logistics, and agronomics.
“We work hard to understand the production and marketing needs from the farm to the producer,” Steve said.
After Garn retires from daily operations, he said he will likely do some consulting
“With our water supplies and infrastructure, there’s still room for growth,” Garn said. “The future is exciting because new potato varieties are being developed and innovations will always come along.”
— By Dianna Troyer, Spudman correspondent