What’s a Yooper? A Yooper is a euphemism for a resident of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.). Three percent of Michigan residents call the Upper Peninsula home and are proud to be known as Yoopers.
Diane Hanson is the sole Yooper serving on the United States Potato Board (USPB). She farms with her husband, Dennis Hanson, and their two sons, Scott and Ted, on the family’s seed farm in Cornell. She was born into a potato farm family and is a lifelong potato farmer.
As a child in 4-H, we always entered our potatoes in the U.P. state fair,” Hanson said. “I recall one year I won the top sweepstake award. I was around 13, and the older boys made the comment ‘look a girl is winning.’ Well this girl is the one who still farms today, and none of those boys ever have.”
Hanson’s paternal grandparents Fulgens and Bertha Falkeis, were farmers who immigrated to the United States from Austria in early 1919. They settled in the Upper Peninsula, at the farm’s present location, located on the Escanaba River, because of the rich soil. Her family was fortunate to choose this location because they can still irrigate from the river, to this day. They purchased the land after the railroads left, having cleared all of the trees. The railroads left all the stumps behind and her grandparents started with 40 acres of land to finish clearing.
“My father, Frank Falkeis, started farming after he finished the eighth grade,” Hanson said. “If he would have gone on to further his education, he would have had to travel and be boarded, in Escanaba, which is 20 miles away. He married Martha Verbrigghe in 1945. Her parents came from Belgium and were farmers in the St. Nicholas area, seven miles away. My father was known in Michigan and the United States for record yields in growing potatoes during the 1950s and 1960s.”
Hanson and her husband, Dennis, began growing potatoes in 1979. Prior to that, they were dairy farmers. She likes to tell him that she was the one who taught him all he knows about potatoes.
“Dennis and I are semi-retired, but remain active in the day-to-day operations,” she said. “I do the bookkeeping and help in the warehouse with harvesting, cutting, grading, and shipping of seed potatoes. I help out wherever I am needed.”
Their sons, Scott and Ted, have taken over the farm operation. Scott is on the Michigan Seed Potato Association Board and Ted is on the Michigan Potato Industry Commission and the Michigan Research Committee.
“We now 240–250 acres of seed potatoes and own around 1,800 acres,” Hanson said. “In the spring and harvest, we are lucky enough to have our fifth generation on the farm to help when they are not in school.”
All of the varieties grown on the farm are for seed. They include Atlantic, Beacon, Chipper, Goldrush, Lamoka, Manistee, Onaway, Reba, Red Norland, Russet Norkotah, Russet Norkotah LS and Snowden.
“We have customers who are table-stock growers, chip growers and processors,” Hanson said. “We sell to Chief Wabasis Potato Growers and Potato Services of Michigan, who supply growers with seed. Our potatoes are on a five-year rotation with corn, oats and hay. We also have around 50 head of beef cattle.”
Hanson said that the Upper Peninsula’s cooler climate is ideal for seed potatoes because there is less chance for bugs and disease.
“We farm in an isolated northern location with a short growing season,” she said. “There are not many 90° days, and last summer, I don’t believe we had any. We also don’t have a lot of humidity, and this is helpful against blight.”
Transportation is one of the Hansons’ biggest challenges due to the farm’s isolation. The short length of their growing season and weather conditions can also be difficult. Over the years, they have worked hard and gained from experience. They consistently and effectively manage these issues and deliver quality seed potatoes to their customers.
“We sell some of our potatoes through a broker, but most of our crop is sold direct to farmers,” Hanson said. “Through the years we have built relationships with our growers based on trust and the quality of seed we provide. Our customers have gotten to know us well and know they are receiving the highest quality of seed. Our greatest source of advertisement is our customers who return year after year.”
This past winter Hanson received a 2015 Michigan Potato Industry Commission service award for dedicated efforts in furthering Michigan potatoes. She also was reappointed to the Michigan Commission on Agriculture and Rural Development (MCARD). She previously served as the MCARD chairwoman.
Hanson said her time on the USPB has been very rewarding. She has enjoyed meeting growers and learning the different issues they face and common problems agriculture deals with nationwide. She is completing her sixth and last year on the USPB.
“I was very happy to be asked to serve as one of the Michigan representatives on the USPB,” Hanson said. “I feel that if we don’t tell our story, no one is going to do it for the potato industry. I feel this has a chance for me to do what I could do for our growers in Michigan.
“I was not aware of all the things the USPB does, whether it was feeding children in Third World counties, expanding markets in the United States or numerous countries or research of what the consumer is looking for. In recent years, potatoes have taken a hit with regards to the perception of how healthy they really are. With the help of the USPB, we can educate the consumer on the nutrition of potatoes.”
Serving on the USPB has helped Hanson gain new information about the impact of potatoes and potato products can have in helping alleviate world hunger.
“Personally, the Feed My Starving Children work with the dehydrated program has had the most impact on me,” she said. “The program shows how babies survive on potatoes when they have been sick with diarrhea. My first year on the USPB, I had no idea potatoes could help with diarrhea.”
From Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the USPB, Hanson is first and foremost a champion of U.S. potatoes and farming. She inspires action and involvement in everything she does, with a focus on knowledge, learning and communicating agriculture’s story.