Tony Amstad put his 50th crop in the ground this spring.
His nearly 2,100 acres of mostly Norkotas, with about 150 acres of reds, are a far cry from the 20 acres of Burbank Russets he planted in 1959.
"We started growing for the fresh market," Amstad says. "In the `60s we went to the Norgold, then to the Norkota in the late `70s."
He started with a two-row planter and a two-row digger. "When we first got a machine that would pick up the potatoes off the ground and put them in a truck, we thought we were in pure heaven," he quips.
The old days were filled with ups and downs, according to Amstad, just like today.
"It's a different business now," he says. "Then, we had just a couple of customers. They would call and ask us to `bring them a couple bags of potatoes.' Now, we do business on the internet and don't even know what our customers look like."
Amstad says it is, in part, the corporate influence that has brought on the change, with large co-ops now dominating the business. Amstad Farming Company, located near Hermiston, Ore., just south of the Washington state line, is in what Amstad calls a "unique situation." It does not sell through a co-op, but maintains its own sales office. Amstad Farming employs around 50 people year-round and around 100 during harvest.
THE BIG PICTURE
In 50 years of farming, Amstad has figured out how to do a few things right. Amstad Farming Co. was honored with the National Potato Council's 2008 Environmental Stewardship Award.
They rotate crops, planting wheat and corn in the off years and leasing out some land to be planted to peas and other crops during the third year. They measure water use daily to prevent over- or under-watering. Amstad makes every effort to control spraying and run-off. He border-sprays fields for insects. And they provide habitat for pheasants and other birds.
"We try to do a few things right and be good stewards of the land," says Amstad.
And he tries to be a good steward of the potato market. "We never plant more than we have sold," Amstad explains. "There's no room in this business today for extra `marketing.'"
Amstad applies that approach not only to his own farm, but to the entire industry. He works faithfully through the United Potato Growers of America to control production. "It's do or die," he says.
Amstad has served as chairman for the United Potato Growers of Washington as well as the United Potato Growers of Oregon. He also sits on the national board of directors for the UPGA, which he says has made great progress in stabilizing potato markets in recent years.
"By 2004 things were a complete wreck," explains Amstad. "We were making $1-1.50 on our potatoes." Since then, Amstad says, the co-op of 70-75 percent of fresh growers has controlled acreage and "put money back in the growers' pockets."
"It's serving its purpose," says Amstad.
But he is worried the progress may be lost. "We're concerned those outside the co-op will start over-planting," Amstad continues. "After a few good years, it's tempting to jump back in. But an increase of only 5 percent would bring us back to the 2004 problems. Ten percent would be a bloodbath. We can't stand any extra potatoes on the market." He says producers need to think before they plant. In some cases they would be better off to let land sit idle than to take a loss.
STILL WORK TO DO
Amstad sees a bright future for the potato in today's economy. A return to basics and a simpler way of life could be good news for a staple like the potato. "Potatoes are an excellent buy. At $3-4 for a 10-pound bag, it's pretty cheap food. And people seem to want to return to a way of living and cooking they knew as kids-the way their mother did it," says Amstad. "As people return to doing more home-cooking, potatoes are a pretty economic way to feed a family."
Amstad is not a fan of government programs. "We try to keep the government out of our business," he says with a laugh.Amstad lived through the government's prior attempts to help potato growers with "diversion programs" that purchased potatoes to be diverted to cattle feed or dumped. "All it did was bail farmers out so they turned around and planted more," he explains, "and that's exactly what we don't want to see."
Amstad certainly does not want to imply all the potato growers' problems are solved. There will always be market issues and a never-ending array of environmental battles to fight.
"Chemicals and the EPA are ongoing," says Amstad. "We fight to keep the chemicals we've been using for a long time that work for us. They want to abolish those and make us use things that never work as well."
And water is always an issue. Amstad is lucky to have one farm that draws its irrigation water directly from the Columbia River; others rely on melt from the mountains. "It's always a battle with the environmentalists to keep our share of the water," he says, as he explains a new approach: capturing river and melt water in the winter and storing it for summer.
He applauds research attempting to develop new varieties that require less water and fertilizer, as well as those that hold potential for bridging the fresh and processing markets.
Amstad has every reason to think Amstad Farming Co. will be in the potato business for some time to come.
He has two sons, a daughter and a nephew in the business. Production is under control and the economy and science are in their favor.
"We have to be willing to learn new practices and keep the markets under control," says Amstad as he looks forward to his 50th harvest.