With rain delaying harvest of their 2,000 acres of potatoes, Deverle Wattenbarger and his three sons take a rare office break. They reminisce and laugh about how they all planned to leave Wattenbarger Farms, a sprawling enterprise on eastern Idaho’s Snake River Plain.
When they were growing up, I worked my boys hard, just like my dad did me and my brother,” said Deverle, 70. “In those days, you never paid your kids to work. It was expected. After they graduated from high school, we told them to do something besides farming.”
Deverle himself had taken his own advice, fleeing his family farm after high school. For a few years, he worked road construction.
“Then I realized farming was in my blood, just like it was for my grandpa. He came out from Tennessee in 1906 and ended up farming 180 acres,” Deverle said. Looking out a window, he points toward a tidy, white farmhouse shaded by towering trees a half-mile away from their farm headquarters north of Shelley. “I grew up over there.”
After marrying in 1965, Deverle and his wife, Caryl, rented 160 acres and began growing potatoes and wheat. Deverle also farmed 180 acres with his dad, Ray, eventually taking over when he retired.
After high school, each of the Wattenbarger brothers heeded their parents’ advice to leave – at least for a while. Bart, 48, worked in sales. Jared, 46, earned a finance degree and worked for HK Contractors in road construction. With an economics degree, Ryan, 39, became a banker.
While his sons were advancing in their careers, Deverle was toiling steadily to enlarge Wattenbarger Farms. Meanwhile, Caryl did the farm’s bookkeeping between her other jobs, working at a bank and driving a school bus.
“Raising our sons on the farm taught them a work ethic,” Caryl, 67, said, while taking a break from working on payroll. “They learned teamwork, which you have to have these days to farm successfully on a large scale. The different job skills they acquired and brought back to the farm are all valuable and fill a niche.”
As the business grew, Deverle wondered if his sons would consider working with him again. Returning, they were impressed with their dad’s thriving business in Bonneville and Bingham counties.
Bart was the first son to return to the family farm in 1995.
“I came back because I’m a farmer at heart,” Bart said. “I was grateful for the opportunity to work with my dad again.”
Jared joined his brother and parents in 2009.
“Dad told us he didn’t care what we did as long as we did it right. He works the hardest of all of us. He’s up at 5 and goes to bed late. We trail behind him,” Jared said.
Ryan returned in 2011 after working as a commercial loan officer for 10 years with Zions Bank. “I couldn’t let them have all the fun,” said Ryan, who handles the farm’s financing. “Dad taught us that when the sun is shining, you make hay.”
Since their return to the farm, Bart and Jared have served on the U.S. Potato Board. Currently, Bart serves as a board member for Bingham Co-op, which supplies the farm with fertilizer and chemicals.
Forming a four-way partnership, the Wattenbargers supervise 12 employees and maintain a fleet of vehicles and equipment. They grow potatoes and hard white wheat, rotating the crops on 4,000 acres.
During fall potato harvest, they have 50 to 55 employees. During planting season, they supervise 20 to 25 workers.
The Wattenbargers emphasize that their success is largely due to a team effort.
“We appreciate everyone who helps us, from our year-round employees, Ray Saunders and Ian Vouk, to our seasonal workers coming from Mexico,” Deverle said. “We couldn’t do all this alone.”
They talked about this year’s crop being impacted by unusually wet weather in mid-August.
“It affected the size profile a little,” Deverle said. “Along with the regular-sized potatoes, the plants started growing little ones the size of creamers, which was unusual. By harvest, the soil had perfect moisture content, so we could sail through 120 acres a day. Then the rains came in late September, 2.5 inches in the rain gauge in one day, so we had to quit for a while.”
They harvested 100 acres of Cal Whites and 100 acres of Russet Rangers for processors. They also grew 1,800 acres of Russet Burbanks for General Potato and Onion Distributors’ fresh market.
“Dad’s ability to raise quality crops caught the attention of GPOD in the ’60s when others wanted to sell to them,” Jared said. “He just kept selling them a little more every year until they became our biggest buyer.”
Deverle said a GPOD owner lived near him and knew he would get a good quality crop consistently from Wattenbarger Farms wherever their spuds were grown.
While expanding the farm, Deverle said he confronted “every kind of soil you can imagine. We have good, bad, rocky, sandy loam, clay, and heavy dirt. They each require different irrigation strategies.”
While soil types are extremely variable, Deverle knows he can rely on steady irrigation supplies from the Snake River and private wells.
“We’re grateful to have dependable water sources,” said Deverle, president of the Woodville Canal Company. “We’re also members of two irrigation districts: Snake River and New Sweden.”
Has the Wattenbarger farming gene been passed along to any of Deverle’s grandchildren?
“Out of all the grandchildren, my son Brennon shows the most interest,” said Bart of his 15-year-old son. “He can do just about anything with operating the equipment. He does the irrigation with me. He asks intelligent questions and is aware of the big picture of running the farm.”
Since their sons’ return, Deverle and Caryl leave the farm during winter. For four months, they live in St. George, Utah.
“We’re finally getting the vacations we never had for years,” Caryl said. “There are finally enough of us to cover for each other.”
In the off-season, Deverle takes a little time for his hobbies: refurbishing vintage pickups and downhill skiing.
“We’re having a good harvest,” said Deverle. “We’ll be done soon and start thinking about what to plant in spring.”