On a cold, gloomy, overcast November morning in the area east of St. Anthony, Idaho, known as Hog Hollow, Dirk Parkinson's sons were taking bets on whether or not they could hit an old blue pickup at 1,060 yards out in the field with a .243 caliber rifle. Dirk says they can nail it every time with a .50 caliber. Some of them, including Dirk, were convinced they could hit it with a .243; however, as he points out, everything has to be just right.
After several attempts, they came into Dirk's office to report they never hit it.
Dirk is quick to point out that he's not sure if he's at work or at home, being that he and his wife live above his office and shop. The second-generation potato grower and fifth-generation Idaho grower enjoys his job so much, he says he actually dreams about potatoes.
Because of his love of and dedication to the industry, Parkinson was selected as the 2011 Idaho Crop Improvement Association Seed Grower of the Year.
Hog Hollow Grower
Dirk just finished his 27th season as a full-time grower. His great-great-grandfather farmed in the Cache Valley in Utah, and the family eventually started growing crops in the St. Anthony, Idaho, area. Prior to 1978, they were dry farmers.
Dirk's father, Bob, grew his first crop of potatoes in 1982-the year before Dirk graduated from South Fremont High School in St. Anthony. Dirk liked farming and could see the opportunities. He attended a year of Ricks College in nearby Rexburg before returning to the farm.
Parkinson Seed Potatoes began with 90 acres of potatoes in 1982, increasing to 200 acres the next year and 360 acres when Dirk returned from Ricks College. Last season, they grew 2,100 acres of certified seed under more than 22 center pivots and a few hand lines.
Varieties include Russet Burbanks, Rangers, Cal Whites, Alturas, Atlantics Rio Grande and Norkotah line varieties 112, 278, 3 and 296. They also grow Potandon varieties Maryland, Princess and Cecille. Despite the fact that many eastern Idaho growers grow barley as a rotational crop, Dirk keeps his rotational crops limited to 2,800 acres of wheat and about 80 acres of alfalfa.
He typically plants potatoes the first of May, but he will plant the fourth week of April if the weather is conducive. They start harvesting around September 20-22.
In Hog Hollow, they don't see late blight, and only occasionally do they see early blight, aphids and Colorado Potato Beetle. He says their worst pests are weeds: wild oats, Canadian thistle, hairy nightshade and kochia. He tank mixes Eptam (Gowan), Outlook (BASF) and Sencor (Bayer CropScience) and says that mix works pretty well.
Dirk is currently in his fifth year on the board of directors for ICIA, and he's the president of NEU Seed (Naturally Enhanced United Seed), which develops and markets potato cultivars with new innovative traits developed through a natural smart breeding tool. Involved with a San Diego, Calif., company called Fibus, they use the plant's own natural repair system to effect changes in potatoes to make plants resistant to herbicides and black spot bruise.
With over a quarter of a century of experience in the industry behind him, Dirk says that Idaho growers know how to do really well what they do, but there are two things Idaho growers still need to learn.
One is marketing.
"We do not market well," he says. "That's because we market like growers. Growers really don't know anything about marketing. We all need to participate in Marketing 101, 201, 301 and 401."
He says that organizing as United Potato Growers of America has been one of the best things the industry has ever done, but he points out that what Idaho growers have done since then is a problem.
"Overall, it's just really not been very good because we do not pull together as a group. I'm talking about the whole state."
That dovetails into the second problem: pride.
"Pride and ego can cost you a lot of money. Pride's cost me some money, I'll tell you. It's just better to pull together as a cohesive group and do some marketing. Marketing is really, really simple. If you want to make money, don't oversupply the market. If you oversupply the market, you'll lose your assets-simple."
Dirk comes from a family of 11 children-four sisters and seven brothers. While attending South Fremont High School as a junior, he met his future wife, Robyn, also a junior, attending Sugar-Salem High School in nearby Sugar City.
"I was a wrestler, and she was a wrestling cheerleader," he says. "That's how I met her."
They were married November 3, 1984, so they just celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary.
Dirk and Robyn have 10 children, all with names that begin with "J": Jake, Josh, Jennu, Jessie, Jamie, Jady, Jud, Jared, Jordon, Joe and Josie.
"When I want to say it that way, I can, unless I'm with them one-on-one," he says.
He says that they weren't planning on naming all of their children with "J" names at first, they just happened to like the first four names. They figured they'd only have a couple more, so they decided to stick with "J" names.
"Then it sort of ballooned after that, so we didn't want anybody to feel left out."
His two oldest-Jake, 26, and Josh, 25-as well as Jud, 20, are working on the farm. Josh is in charge of planting, cultivating, harvesting and other field work; Jake is in charge of storage, and Jud runs the sprayer and does a lot of repairing and welding.
His sons aren't full-time partners on the farm just yet-Dirk is only 46, so he's not old enough to consider turning over the operations.
Dirk liked farming growing up and went to college just to get away and see what things were like out in the world.
"So, I did that," he says. "It was a good experience for me. I figured out one thing, and that was: It doesn't matter what you do in this world, you're going to work hard at it if you want to get good at it."
Dirk says he's always loved "playing in the dirt," so he decided to stick around. And it's been worth it to him.
"Me and my father, had one hell of a good time," he says.
Before Bob died in 1996, he and Dirk took the farm from 90 acres of seed potatoes to 1,100 acres. Since then, Dirk has increased potato acreage by another 1,000.
"I've really enjoyed it a lot," he says. "It's something I enjoy doing every day of my life. I can't wake up without thinking about seed potatoes. I dream about seed potatoes. I love to cut them, I love to market them, I love to raise them, I love to size them. It's crazy."