After five years as the owners of South Wind Farms, Rod Lake and brothers Jerry and Robert Tominaga did two things for the first time: took home cash and didn't produce a single Russet Burbank potato. Instead they took on the newer, narrower market of specialty potatoes.
"We live and die with fingerlings," said Jerry.
In order to get an edge on the specialty market, Lake and the Tominagas started a farm on four acres with the idea of growing specialty varieties. Now they have 165 acres with plans to work more.
"The potato industry is going through what the apple industry went through 10 years ago," said Rod. "You used to go to the store and there would be Red Delicious and one or two others but now there's a lot more. That's what we're doing with the potato industry."
South Wind Farms produces four varieties of specialty potatoes, namely the Russian Banana Fingerling, the Purple Peruvian Fingerling, the French Fingerling and the Yukon Gold.
This year they've also had experimental varieties that don't even have names yet.
"There are white ones with red splashes, red with white splashes and so on," said Jerry.
They attribute whether a breed goes or stays mainly to costumer demand and if it's profitable to grow it.
Each kind of potato has its own taste and texture making, it marketable in its own right. Being unique also means having a specific growing period, cultivation techniques and storage requirements. There's no almanac or guide to turn to for this information. They've had to come up with a framework themselves through a lot a trial and error.
Even equipment has to be modified.
"We have a lot of equipment out back that's just sitting there," said Jerry about their old conventional potato farming equipment. "It's just junk."
The partners describe the last five years of getting in the specialty potato business as "an expensive learning curve," but believe they are doing more than they would have had they stayed with conventional potatoes. According to them, it is three times as expensive to grow a specialty potato as it is to grow Russet Burbank.
Lake recognizes their willingness to grow specialty varieties came at a conducive time for the market. "If we were trying to do this 10 years ago we wouldn't have been able to do it," said Lake. "We've grown with the demand. The demand still is growing and we think it will still grow for some more years."
South Wind Farms has succeeded not only as a farm but as a business. The Department of Agriculture issued a $300,000 Value Added Producer Grant to the farm with the intention to support the organization in expanding the agriculture industry in the area.
The grant isn't simply a handout. "We have to match it dollar-per-dollar," said Lake.
The money is ear-marked for things like marketing and hiring new employees.
Selling crops to the right people at the right time is always important, but selling specialty potatoes is much more complex. Fingerlings are sold by the pallet instead of by the load. Buyers also order any combination of the four varieties of potatoes.
At first, South Wind Farms sold through regular potato marketers. "They promised to sell [the whole crop]," said Lake, "but they weren't able to sell hardly anything."
Now those at South Wind market everything themselves. They've worked extensively at branding, hoping to establish South Wind as the premier specialty potato producer.
They usually sell directly to food distributors like Sysco and their product typically ends up in high-end restaurants.
The company also sells to private growers who want fingerlings in the orders they send to their buyers. Those growers have found it helps business.
"Marketing is our biggest thing now," said Jerry.
Lake and the Tominagas have 60 years of potato growing experience among them, but now they're blazing a whole new trail. "It's not for the weak in heart," Lake said.