Idaho Crop Improvement Association named Norm Johnson of Grace, Idaho, as the 2008 Idaho Seed Potato Grower of the Year. The award will be presented at an upcoming PGI banquet.
Johnson has grown potatoes in Grace for over 30 years and has seen a lot of changes in that time.
"I think that most would agree that farming is challenging, but it has been an amazing journey. It will be interesting to see what the next five, 10, 20 or 30 years will bring," he said.
"I am sure there will be plenty of changes and farmers will need to continue to be adaptable and involved to be successful. But that is one of the things that I think farmers do best. They have to be able to solve their own problems because there is now one else to do it for them. They have to be independent thinkers for their own operation because as much as they have in common, there are no two alike."
Johnson said, "Everyone needs to work together for the common good and still have their own plan of success for their own farming operation."
One of the changes at the Johnson operation was going from growing only Russet Burbanks to adding other varieties. Four varieties were produced last year, a couple of which were early generation.
"As seed growers we really focus on clean seed. We have avoided varieties that we felt might compromise our need to provide clean seed to our customers. The demand for some of these varieties has proven to be a challenge to the seed industry nationwide," he said.
Johnson produces generation 1 seed and typically keeps G2 seed, though excess G2s are sold to other seed growers. His G3 seed is sold to commercial operations.
He has about 360 acres of potatoes and rotates wheat and barley on his other acres. "We plant fall wheat immediately following potato harvest. So far this has worked really well for us.
"There is moisture to germinate the crop. It takes some pressure off spring planting, divides the irrigation so that we aren't trying to irrigate everything at once, and, on a dry year, the fall wheat takes less water, making more available for the potatoes and barley."
Another way Johnson has found to take care of his potato crop is in the method of rouging used on the farm.
"We do this on horseback. We only take 4 rows at a time and are very methodical. We feel that this really helps us know what we have and what we need to do to maintain a high quality of seed. While we are out there we really see a lot of things that I think we might miss by not going through the whole field," he said.
"We are a small farm and that enables us to continue to do this at least for now. Since we can only average about 20 acres a day per horse, we still have other rougers that help. There is another couple with horses and a lot of experience that help us for a while. We also hire foot rougers to go through at least once."
Johnson also takes care in how fertilizer is used.
"We in-line a lot of fertilizers through the water, even on the grain. It takes a lot of management but we feel we gain some efficiencies in the amount of fertilizer and the timing of the fertilizer for the crop. This is still a work in progress and changes some from year to year," he said.
"We also focus some on the biological aspect of farming. We have come to realize that there is more than NPK to farming. We are not alone in this. Although we have been doing this for a number of years, we are still learning. It keeps farming interesting."
But not all of Johnson's work in the industry has been accomplished on the farm. He has served as vice president of seed for PGI and as director of Idaho Crop Improvement Association (ICIA). He is a director of the Last Chance Canal Company in Grace and president of two lateral companies connected to the canal system. He is also in a second term as a director of ICIA.
Johnson and his wife, Nina, were married in 1971 and they have three boys and two girls. The first two children, twin boys, were born while Johnson was a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army. He was on active duty from 1972-74.
Johnson, who grew up on a dry farm, got into the potato industry thanks in part to his father-in-law, Harold Varley, who was looking to get out of the business. The Johnsons felt that taking over the farm would be a good move and that Grace would be a good place to rear a family.
"It was a steep learning curve for me to go to raising potatoes and irrigation, but that is how I got my start and I feel I had a good teacher and mentor. Harold was doing well farming 326 acres with about 100 acres in potatoes. He did a good job and was well respected in the industry," Johnson said.
From that start Johnson has continued to see success in his operation and has recognized it in others. "There a lot of good growers in the state of Idaho, and some really good growers in Grace," he said.
In all, Johnson feels that it has been a good place to take care of potatoes and his family.
"My children now grown all have an excellent work ethic. All have graduated from college and some have advanced or are working on advanced degrees. They are raising good families and are contributing to society in many ways both in work and service," Johnson said. "Of all the things that I have raised, my family, hands down, is my best crop."