Colorado Grower Adapts to Changing Industry by Expanding Farm
Bruce Heersink knows what it takes to keep his farm successful. Afterall, he’s watched his dad and grandfather before him. Bruce is the fifth generation to farm his family’s land in Monte Vista, Colo.
The family’s H & H Farms and LaRue Farms spans 1,300 acres of commercial and seed potatoes, split about 40 percent and 60 percent, respectively. Though his family’s been raising commercial potatoes all along, Heersink just started growing and selling seed potatoes about four years ago. Seed was a natural next step for Heersink, who said prices for seed potatoes were too high and reliable information too sparse.
When we were trying to source new seed for ourselves, it was hard because you were at the mercy of the seed program and the literature they produce,” Heersink said. “It’s important that you can trust the seed producer to give you a quality product at a fair price and still maintain the honesty and integrity that goes along with that relationship.”
After talking with other commercial growers, Heersink realized that he wasn’t the only one having problems creating a relationship with seed growers. So he decided to start growing and selling seed from his own farm.
But getting to where he is now hasn’t always been easy.
“It’s hard to establish yourself in the seed business as a new grower and find a customer base, but you can do it if you have a quality product and offer it to commercial potato producers at a fair price,” Heersink said.
Heersink does all of his own public relations for the seed business by visiting every grower who buys his seed as well as others that he hopes will buy his seed.
“It’s a lot of commitment in the spring and summer in between my crops,” he said. “Probably the most important part of trying to sell seed is establishing that relationship and going to see their farm and how they’re doing things.”
Heersink visits his customers’ farms during planting and harvesting to get a complete idea of how the farm operates.
H & H Farms starts the seed at generation 2 and produce the seed to where it’s a generation 4 or 5. Generation 4, Heersink said, is what most of his customers are looking for.
“You have to find the low generation seed and search out clean supplies at that low generation level so as you continue to grow it year by year, you can maintain the quality you’re looking for,” he said.
When Heersink is looking for new customers, he is looking for a three-year commitment. Through those three years, his customers can buy as much or as little seed as they want. But, what Heersink gets is a guarantee that they’ll come to him for their seed. And what the customer gets is that Heersink will charge a fair price for seed with and acceptable seed size distribution.
Another way Heersink is able to attract customers is being a member of Spudseed.com, an Internet-based seed buying and selling company. Spudseed.com has 12 grower members from Colorado.
“Through Spudseed.com, we’re able to go out and pull our resources together,” Heersink said. “When you get a group of people together and they’re all working for the same thing, they’ll think alike and set their prices and maintain their prices as best they can throughout the organization.”
Belonging to such a business, Heersink is able to work with the other growers instead of worrying about a lot of other competition.
“There’s an extreme amount of competition not only here in Colorado, but in Idaho, California, Montana, the Dakotas, Maine and PEI,” he said. “We have so many seed growers in our organization (Spudseed.com), that it’s not like you’re out competing with that many seed producers.”
Heersink said another challenge in the potato industry is imports and exports.
“Canada can get in our hair from time to time the export and import rules are different,” he said. “So far the guys in the United States are at a disadvantage.”
And as imports from all areas continue to rise disproportionately from U.S. exports, the U.S. potato industry is facing other trade challenges as well.
“We need to keep the export and import ratio so that United States’ producers will not fall by the wayside because they (retailers) figure out it’s cheaper to bring exports in,” Heersink said. “If the commercial producers are not making any money, it’s extremely hard to be successful as a seed grower if they’re not making money, they’re not out looking for seed.”
While fighting the trade battle abroad, issues at home with water availability and labor are leaving some growers concerned.
“Water is the biggest concern out here (San Luis Valley),” Heersink said. “The underground aquifer has been dropping at an alarming rate, and producers of ag products need to have their focus not only on raising their crops but on conservation as much as they can to protect the longevity of agriculture here in the San Luis Valley.”
Right now, Heersink said growers are looking at shortening the length of their irrigation systems, cutting back on planted acreage and switching to crops that don’t require as much water.
“You have to pay your bills it has to work,” he said. “But somehow the valley has to come together to maintain agriculture.”
Another place Heersink has found problems in the industry lately is recruiting and maintaining skilled employees. The laborers are in the area, and they will work, but as the laws change, many growers are seeing themselves have to adjust how they look for help.
“It’s a tough situation to deal with laborers in the valley,” he said. “With all of the homeland security, they’ve tightened up the border, and that’s where a lot of spring and fall laborers come from.”
In the spring, H & H Farms employs six workers to eight workers, and in the fall they hire eight to 15. On top of that is Heersink; his father, Ron; mother, Ann; wife, Shannon; and sons, Austin and Mason.
Having his family involved on the farm is one of the things that keeps Heersink going.
“Running a family farm can be trying for the families that are involved, but it’s the best place to teach a family values and morals of running a farm,” he said. “It’s important in my situation, since my farm’s been around as long as it has, to make my dad and grandpa proud. Without my dad and grandpa, I would not be here also.
“It’s important to keep the farm successful because you don’t want to be the generation that screwed it up.”
H & H Farms and LaRue Farms can be reached by calling (719) 588-1737 or e-mailing [email protected]”