Location, location, location.
It’s what prompted Joe Thompson and his family to move from the Grafton and Park River, N.D. region and relocate in Alliance, Neb. to grow seed potatoes.
In 1995, Joe and his father, Dan Thompson purchased their farm, which lies west of Nebraska’s Sand Hills, and began operating as Thompson Seed Potato Partnership (TSPP).
Joe Thompson is a United States Potato Board (USPB) member, representing Nebraska, and serves on the USPB’s South Central caucus. He also has served as president of the Nebraska Potato Certification Association and as a member of the National Potato Council (NPC) Board of Directors. At TSPP he is a partner and farm manager.
It was a learning experience for the Thompsons when they started growing seed potatoes in western Nebraska in 1995. “Those first few years were an education and challenging as we learned irrigation and had our first experiences with potato scab in the Central Plains,” Thompson said. “The cost of the tuition was high back then, and is perhaps worse today. The 1996 crop year was pretty rough for many producers then, and during our first two years, we were plagued with poor quality and marketing issues.”
Following back-to-back years of setbacks the Thompsons made a series of changes. They cut their acreage back to what they could sell, started growing varieties that were better suited for the area and found better farmland.
After working through these setbacks, Joe and Dan were able to solve their production and marketing issues and realize their goal of producing seed potatoes centrally located in the United States at a site conveniently located for many production regions in North America. Today, about 20 varieties are produced at TSPP.
They grow seed for the chip-stock, table-stock, and frozen sectors. All of the seed potatoes are marketed through their Countrywide Potato marketing organization.
This past year they supplied seed to farms in Washington’s Skagit Valley, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Maine as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta and New Brunswick.
While meeting the seed potato needs for growers in many regions, about 90 percent of their seed potatoes stay within 600 miles of their Alliance, Neb. location. The isolation and arid climate of western Nebraska are ideal for seed potato production. Their farm is about 50-60 miles off the beaten path from other seed farms. The Thompsons produce low generation seed potatoes. They do a lot of business with other seed growers for recertification.
From an early age, Joe Thompson has been involved in potato production. He received his bachelor’s in agri-business from the University of Minnesota, St. Paul.
“I have a passion for growing potatoes from Dan, my father,” Thompson said. “He is the oldest of six brothers who still live in the Northern Plains and Red River Valley region. I have four uncles, Rick, Ron, Tom and Doug, who still farm potatoes near the Grafton and Park River area. We supply them with a fair amount of their seed potatoes and do business with them, as well as some marketing for them because they are seed growers also.”
Corn, seed triticale and alfalfa are grown in rotation at Thompson Seed Potatoes, but the major focus is working on and doing the best they can to produce high quality seed potatoes. Challenges in Nebraska range from dealing with scab to sudden hailstorms each year. According to Thompson, they need to be very careful on their crop history and rotations to prevent scab. As to hail in Nebraska, it’s not a question of if, but when and how much.
There are about half a dozen potato growers in Nebraska who represent the chip, fresh russet and seed sectors of the industry. The seed sector comprises about 25 percent of the potato industry in the state. Growing practices in Nebraska are not too different from neighboring Colorado. The state does receive more rainfall, but also deals with more summer heat than in Colorado or Idaho. Overall the climate is arid in Nebraska, and this helps to mitigate insects and pests.
Thompson is in the middle of his second term as a USPB board member. As a USPB Seed Task Force member, he attended the first USPB Seed Symposium in 2001 in Washington, D.C., and has experience exporting seed potatoes. He advocates each production area having representation on the USPB, and values USPB representation from the seed industry, which represents about 10 percent of the potato industry.
Regarding the USPB’s nutrition work, Thompson notes how difficult this can be because more meals are eaten away from home. It can be a challenge for potatoes or any food to be served and consumed in healthful ways in restaurants, when people tend to expect larger portion sizes and exciting tastes and flavors they would not usually have when eating meals at home.
Thompson participated in the 2002 Potato Industry Leadership (PILI) class. PILI is an eight day program providing an overview of the potato industry’s challenges and issues beyond the production sector, and the roles of the industry's state and national organizations in maintaining a positive business climate for potato growers. PILI is a joint venture of the NPC and the USPB and is sponsored by Syngenta.
Thompson and his wife Rebecca, have three sons: Ian, 11, Logan, 9, and Tate, 7. As a seed grower, he believes in doing what you are good at, and letting others excel in what they are good at.
— By Dave Fairbourne, USPB ICP Manager