Grower of the Month: Michael Kundert of Edison, Calif.

Published in the December 2010 Issue Published online: Dec 09, 2010
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Potatoes are grown in about 60 percent of states in the U.S., including the Golden State. While most potato-producing areas are far from big cities-requiring flight into a regional airport, accompanied by a long drive-the potato-producing hamlet of Edison, Calif., is unique.

Located in the southern Central Valley county of Kern, about seven and a half miles east of Bakersfield, it boasts citrus trees and vineyards as well as crops you'd see grown in Idaho-including potatoes.

While the three-digit summer months may seem unconducive to the cool-season potato, grower-shippers in Edison make potatoes work. And Michael Kundert, president of Kundert Brothers Farms, Inc., doesn't just make potatoes work, he makes them work year-round.


Specialty as the Specialty

Michael is a third-generation grower. His grandfather, Ruben, starting growing potatoes about 65 years ago-following World War II. During the war, he was in the trucking business until he "had his fill of it," sold his company and began farming. Having grown up with an agricultural background in Eureka, S.D., farming wasn't foreign to him. Potato production in Edison was growing, so Ruben joined in.

Michael's father, Ron, was involved in the farm for many years until his death three and a half years ago. Michael grew up working for his father, but while majoring in accounting at California State University-Bakersfield, his grandfather became ill and died after a year. Ron then asked his son to come back to help out for a little while until the transition period was over, so Michael agreed.

That was almost 30 years ago-in 1981. He never left the farm again, never returned to college.

Michael says his accounting classes are helping his operation "to some extent" with crunching numbers and handling the paperwork of the company.

Kundert Brothers grow about 1,000 acres, which includes specialty potatoes. At one time, they were just growing reds and whites, and even a few acres of russets. In the mid-1990s they decided to branch out into specialties, such as fingerlings and purples. At that point it was only small scale-sold primarily for farmers markets-until the demand started growing.

"At the time [we] felt that there was a demand for the product that wasn't being serviced," Michael says.

So in 2001, they discontinued conventional varieties and went strictly to specialties for the foodservice and wholesale industries. The most popular specialties they grow are Russian Bananas, LaRattes, French fingerlings, Red Thumbs, Rose Finns and a couple purple varieties.

That year, they also started growing varieties year-round, which bucks the trend of Edison's traditional schedule. Potatoes are usually harvested in early spring and early summer, then potato acreage moves north to avoid the three-digit heat.

"We started growing different times of the year so we would work out of storage for a little while, and then have new product coming in so that way we could continually offer the product," he says.

Because they produce potatoes year-round, they're planting and harvesting at different times all year. In December, they're harvesting the winter crop while simultaneously planting the spring crop. The spring crop is harvested in April/May, then they plant the summer crop in the mountains of Tehachapi, about 40 miles to the east, in May and June. At a higher elevation, the summers are more accommodating to potato plants.

"It's not out of the ordinary to hit 100 degrees in May [in Edison]," he says, getting as high as 105 in June and July during the day, and only drops down to 75-80 at night.

Finally, the winter crop is planted back down in the valley in August, and the Tehachapi crop is harvested in September.

"Potatoes are mostly a cool-season crop anyway, so what we try to do goes against its nature," he says, then adds, "We make it work."

For rotational crops, Michael does use wheat, but he also integrates organic principles into his conventional crops-using cover crops that are not harvested, but rather turned under and created into a green manure to create more humus in the soil for the next potato crop.


California Challenges

While taxation and regulation is, obviously, a challenge to growers in the state of California, it's the cost of electricity that's "out of sight."

Being in the San Joaquin Valley, air pollution has been an issue. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District was formed, which brought with it restrictions on diesel and motor pumping.

"So your only option is to use electricity in order to pump groundwater and boost it into the sprinklers. Those are becoming extremely high costs."

Irrigation in the San Joaquin Valley is a must.

"Here in Bakersfield, we get about six inches of rain a year. And that's if we're lucky. There are a lot of years it isn't even that. It's really hard to dry-farm, dry-land anything here and make a crop of it. It almost always has to be irrigated."

They see the occasional frost, but it rarely affects the tubers-the worst it'll do is just set the plant back a little.

One thing they do in the winter-and, to an extent, the summer also to protect plants from the other extreme-is to use a corrugator, which is designed to dig soil out of the furrows and throw it onto the beds in order to add three to four inches of insulation.

"We'll do it in the summertime, too, to protect them from the heat, because it does get hot here."