How did John Halverson, a fourth generation potato grower from North Dakota and a member of Black Gold Farms, become the lone potato grower in the Cotton Belt of Missouri’s Bootheel country? Like so many adventures, it began with a challenge and an opportunity taken.
“We were looking for an area to bridge the gap in our chip-stock production between our Pearsall, Texas, and Charleston, Missouri, locations,” Halverson said. “We tried farming in Louisiana and Mississippi, but the areas we tried were too wet for potatoes. There was a land owner near Hornersville, Missouri, that had been contacting some of our customers telling them he had ideal land for growing potatoes. We checked it out and thought it may work out to help bridge that gap, as it was about two weeks earlier than our Charleston, Missouri, location.”
“In 1999, we tried growing two half-circles—130 acres total,” Halverson said. “The next year, my dad (Gregg Halverson) asked me, ‘Why don’t you stay down here and grow a few acres of potatoes?’”
At the young age of 23 he was about to learn the ways of farming in southern Missouri.
“I was what folks around here considered a 23-year-old Yankee, living in wall-to-wall cotton country,” Halverson said. “I soon learned the gathering place for the area farmers was the local Case-IH dealership called Baker Implement. At 6:00 a.m. every morning, they met at a coffee table to discuss business and farming.”
It took two years of persistence, but Halverson finally got a seat at that coffee table. When he explained his intent to grow potatoes, the response of the farmers was one of disbelief.
Then, one morning, one of the regulars at the coffee table stopped by Halverson’s farm. According to Halverson the man told him he was trying to find something new for his land.
“‘Get in my truck, young man. I’m 62 years old, and I got to figure out something new for my place,’” Halverson said, recalling the conversation. “And with that, he worked me and growing potatoes into his farm’s rotation.
“That was the beginning of some strong relationships with the grower community in Arbyrd, Missouri, which are still going strong today,” Halverson said.
Black Gold landowners are not referred to as landlords. They are called land partners because they play an important role in the production cycle, Halverson said.
“We had a heck of a time opening charge accounts for our farming operations with many of the local businesses. Too many of them had been burned by produce dealers in the past, so right from the start, we had to prove ourselves to be fair, honest, and transparent to the community — always paying our bills on time, and we eventually earned their trust,” he said.
About six years ago, during a review of the Black Gold Farms business plan, the Halversons concluded they were overinvested in chipping potatoes, and needed to diversify their operations. About the same time, Wal-Mart was showing interest in the locally grown movement, which prompted Black Gold Farms to consider growing table-stock red potatoes. Their first red potato crop in Arbyrd was in 2008.
“One strategic advantage growing potatoes in this part of the country is location, and easy access to markets in population centers like Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans,” Halverson said. “We often work with other grower shippers, like Farm Fresh Direct to help mix loads. We believe there is enough room for all grower-shippers to compete and fill market niches equitably.
“The red potato deal has been very good for us, but we’ve paid a lot of tuition and made our share of mistakes along the way,” he said. “Still, we remain cautiously excited about our red potato enterprise.”
At the Arbyrd location, Black Gold Farms grows Frito-Lay varieties and Atlantics for chipping, and primarily Red Lasodas, for their red table-stock market. Corn, soybeans and sweet potatoes are grown in rotation. Black Gold Farms produces sweet potatoes at three of its farm locations—Charleston, Missouri; Delhi, Louisiana; and Arbyrd. Halverson is enthused with the potential for both fresh and processing for sweet potatoes.
“This Missouri farm has exceeded our expectations,” he said. “There is a lot of potential with the warm climate and rich soil. We have continuous microbial activity in the ground. This means we don’t have to deal with the early death type diseases for potatoes,” he said.
Halverson referred to the 2013 growing season as a goofy year because everything was small, and the yields were somewhat light. But over the years, the Arbyrd farm operation has accomplished what Black Gold Farms set out to do — fill the chip-stock potato void between Pearsall, Texas, and Charleston, Missouri. Despite the success, Halverson still considers the Bootheel country to be a high-risk area for growing potatoes.
Halverson said that every Black Gold Farms location across the country works especially hard to build the rationales for their agronomy based on climate, soil conditions and disease prevention measures, while always keeping sustainability in mind.
Halverson was elected to represent Missouri on the USPB, and is perhaps the first board member to serve from the state since the USPB was established in 1972. According to the Potato Research and Promotion Plan, USPB board member representation is based on production by each state, but each state is given at least one seat on the USPB.
“I’m happy to serve on the USPB,” Halverson said. “The USPB’s Chip Program is a model organization for the entire potato industry to follow. From our perspective, the fresh sector of the industry is similar to the challenges the chip sector was facing some years ago — challenges of dealing with a disjointed supply chain.
“At Black Gold, we hope to play a pivotal role in helping to streamline the fresh sector and adapting away from competition based on price. We need to work together and get out of the commodity mindset with fresh potatoes. With our customers, we strive to become their total solution provider. We won’t always compete to be the least cost supplier because service is so much of what we provide as a total solution provider.”
— By David Fairbourn, Spudman Correspondent