Idaho Grower Tackles Challenges Associated with Growing Seed Potatoes
With a few years of active duty in the U.S. Army under his belt, Norm Johnson returned to school to earn a master’s degree in hospital administration. But somewhere on that path, a trip to his father-in-law’s potato farm changed Johnson’s direction.
During one of his breaks from school, Johnson and his wife, Nina, returned to Nina’s father’s farm in Grace, Idaho. Johnson had never farmed potatoes before, but he knew what farming involved.
I grew up in this area, and my dad farmed,” Johnson said. “We weren’t raising potatoes, but I had a little farming in my blood.”
So, with his memories of his father’s farm and his little bit of farming on his father-in-law’s farm, Johnson stopped pursuing his master’s degree and moved back to Grace to farm with his father-in-law. And now, Johnson’s son, Nick, also works on the farm something Johnson said isn’t as uncommon as some think.
“In our little valley, it seems like nearly everybody has their son come back (to the farm),” he said.
Johnson’s farm now is 1,200 acres irrigated, with one-fourth dedicated to seed potatoes Russet Burbanks and Ranger Russets. The rest of the acreage is wheat, barley and a little alfalfa.
Johnson’s busiest time starts in March when they begin shipping their seed potatoes to their customers. Johnson Farms has about 15 to 20 seed customers some from as far away as 150 miles.
“We rely on a lot of repeat business,” Johnson said. “You come to know people in the industry and sell them seed potatoes, and hopefully they like what you sold them so they come back again.”
Johnson said one of the most difficult things seed growers have to deal with is keeping up to date on variety availability.
“There’s new varieties being developed all the time, and those varieties fall in and out of favor,” he said. “As a variety comes popular, it takes up to four years to get them on the market, and as a seed grower, you hope you can get that variety out there and it’s a popular variety that someone wants to plant.
“We have some difficulty anticipating what people need.”
One way Johnson makes sure he’s giving his customers all they need is with farm visits, phone calls and occasional chance meetings. When Johnson has a break in his schedule, he visits customers to see how things are going on their farms. He also visits with them on the phone. And, when they attend the same industry meetings or events, he makes sure to stop, talk and check in.
Grace is a seed management area, and everything that is planted for seed has to be planted for recertification. This means Johnson and other seed growers in the area have more stringent standards they must follow.
“We have to make sure we have clean seed stock to start with,” Johnson said. “We have to get through two field inspections. We have winter grow-outs. We also have the cellar inspections. At all those points, we have to make sure the potatoes are ready at the grade we agreed to.”
Making sure that seed is clean is becoming more difficult, as more diseases seem to enter the growing environments, Johnson said.
“The more we globalize, we have diseases that we didn’t use to have,” he said. “Some are particular to the varieties but it’s not just for the seed growers it’s for all the growers in the state. And as new ones (diseases) become introduced, we have to deal with them.”
New diseases and varieties aren’t the only changes the potato industry is undergoing. Johnson said he sees farms continuing to consolidate.
“It’s been really difficult over the last few years to maintain a good price in the potato industry,” he said. “There will always be people going out, but those farms are usually absorbed and it doesn’t usually affect production.”
The U.S. potato industry continues to improve its ability to grow quality potatoes as well, which continues to help it survive, Johnson said.
“We keep finding more efficient ways to do things,” he said. “Our yields continue to increase.”
Johnson said farming has given him an opportunity to work in an environment he enjoys and allows him to be close with his family.
“It’s been a great place to raise a family and have family around while you’re working it provided them with a lot of opportunities,” he said. “I also enjoy working with the customers we have a lot of them are more than customers, they’re friends.”
In addition to their son Nick, Nina and Norm have two more sons and two daughters. They also have four grandchildren with three more due in the coming months.”