Faming and family. For Richard Gilbert the two could not be more intertwined; the words are almost synonymous for this potato farmer and rancher in Grace, Idaho. Gilberts have been breaking the soil in the Gem Valley in southeast Idaho for five generations when including Richard’s sons and daughter.
To say that farming is a family affair for Richard Gilbert is a bit of an understatement. His great-grandfather came from England to this southeast Idaho community and Gilberts have been farming this fertile valley ever since.
My whole life,” Richard Gilbert said, when asked how long he’s been a potato farmer. “Basically, my whole life with my dad.”
“My dad and my mother started with 160 acres right here,” Gilbert said. “It’s actually the only place I remember living. The house used to be half the size because it used to be a schoolhouse,” Gilbert said,
referring to the center of operations that is now Gilbert Farms LLC.
From the 160 acres that his parents, Don W. and Dolores Gilbert, started in the early 1950s, Richard and his wife Christine have watched the operation grow to more than 3,500 acres.
“We farm, I think close to 3,000 acres and we lease a little over 500 acres of irrigated and dry farm,” Gilbert said.
“I got married at 19, my wife was 18. We were high school sweethearts and we’ve been farming ever since.”
His sons, Clint and Travis, help in the daily operation of the farm and ranch, and his daughter, Cassie Rigby, does the bookkeeping when she’s not teaching math and calculus at Grace High School.
In the division of labor, Clint oversees the cattle operation 225 Hereford/Angus cows that begin calving in January and Travis oversees the potato operation. Along with potatoes, the Gilberts grow registered and certified seed barley for Busch Agriculture.
As soon as calving time ends, they begin shipping Shepody potatoes to Washington state, where they like to have them in the ground by March 15. Yukon Golds are next to be shipped, followed by the Blazer Russets.
On a bright, warm October morning, as his children and grandchildren helped sort potatoes, the Grace school system closed for two weeks for the potato harvest, and the pilers filled the cellars with this year’s crop, Gilbert took time to discuss his operation. The harvest was almost complete and the family was planning on taking Saturday off to celebrate his parents’ 60th wedding anniversary.
“I think we came out all right. We didn’t have a lot of size but we had pretty good numbers,” Gilbert said, “I’d say we had an average yield.”
Planting season went quickly. They were almost completed when ten days of rain delayed their final plantings.
“But a person can’t cuss rain any time,” Gilbert said, with an Idaho farmer’s appreciation for every drop of moisture they get in this valley.
“Once it stopped raining that’s the last of the rain we saw all summer,” Gilbert said.
“On our dry land ground, we rely on mother nature and for the past two years, once it stops raining in the spring, that’s it, we don’t get anymore rain,” Gilbert said. “When I was younger, I used to work with my grandfather on the dry farm. Used to be, several days we’d get a shower up there, and we’d have to get out before the road got too slick.”
These days the Gilberts are growing Shepody, North Red Norlands, Blazer Russet, Premier Russet and Yukon Golds.
This is the second year that they’ve grown Premiers and the first year for the Blazer Russet.
“Those Premiers, we really, really like them. They bulk up really good and they take one less application of fertilizer. We’re quite impressed with the Premier Russets,” he said.
The Blazer Russet size at harvest surprised Gilbert.
“The Blazers seem to yield really well, but they don’t bulk up till late and then, when you dig them, they kind of surprise you. They’re bigger than what you thought they were going to be,” he said.
There was an early frost in the last week of August that hit parts of the valley but it barely affected his crops.
“We got nipped a little bit on a field or two,” Gilbert said.
They also got hit by the escalating fuel and fertilizer costs this summer.
“It went beyond what any of us anticipated. From fuel to fertilizer, everything was crazy,” he said.
“Somewhere along the way I think they’ve got to help protect the farmer a little bit or there’s not going to be any family farms,” Gilbert said.
“Farming is the foundation of this country, but there’s a lot of people that don’t understand that. They seem to think they just have to go to the grocery store. They don’t understand that if there’s no farmers, there’s not going to be anything in the grocery store,” he said.
As Gilbert surveyed the harvest operation his wife, Christine, backing up a truck loaded with freshly harvested Premier Russets, his grandchildren working side by side field workers he reminisced about growing up on a family farm.
“I remember my mother running the farm end while my dad was stacking the hay. She drove a 10-wheeler. She just worked right with my dad and my wife has done the same,” he said. “Four of my five kids live right around me. All my grandkids live right around me so I can see them all the time. These family farms, they’re a good place to raise a family.”