Grower of the Month: Steve Cottom of Dillon, Montana

"Ducks in a Row"

Published in the February 2012 Issue Published online: Feb 06, 2012 Tyler J. Baum
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"Cottom Farm. In order to make operations more efficient, Cottom Seed moved their internal seed storage from a location in Dillon to a new facility on their farm, centralizing their operation into one spot.
"Cottom Family. From left, Steve, father Bill, and brother, David, the owners of Cottom Seed Inc. Bill just turned 76 last February.
"Busy Planting. Once the window of opportunity opens for growers in Dillon, Mont., to start planting, they take it because of the shortness of the growing season."
"Jose Cervantes has worked for the Cottoms for 27 years. Cervantes is a dual citizen of Mexico and America, having been a U.S. citizen now for 11 years. He's the head roguer, because Steve says Cervantes has a "good eye for disease control."
"Hogback. While Beaverhead County is actually named for a rock formation that looks like a beaver's head, within view of Cottom's farm is another rock formation that looks an animal's anatomy-the Hogback-with the Pioneer Mountains in the background.
"Busy Planting. Once the window of opportunity opens for growers in Dillon, Mont., to start planting, they take it because of the shortness of the growing season.

When your growing season is brief, time management is essential. As soon as the window of opportunity is open, you've got to make the most of it.

Just ask Steve Cottom of Cottom Seed, Inc., in Dillon, Mont.

Cottom, who grew up in the Beaverhead County seat in southwestern Montana, is a fourth-generation potato grower who appreciates the advances in technology that allow him to make the most of the growing season to produce a quality, certified seed.


Cottom History

The Cottoms have been growing seed potatoes in the area for close to 80 years. Steve's father, Bill, grew up in the potato business here in Dillon, but the operation started with Bill's paternal grandfather and father in Leadore, Idaho, around the time of the Great Depression. The rocky soil and high elevation of the Lemhi Valley wasn't conducive for growing a good crop of potatoes, so they moved their operations to the Dillon area in southwestern Montana in 1933, looking for better soil and a better growing season.

They've been here ever since.

Bill graduated from Montana State University in Bozeman in 1959 with his bachelor's degree in horticulture, which handled potato education back then. He farmed in Dillon for decades before turning over the day-to-day operations to Steve and his brother, David. Steve, David and their spouses have equal partnership, along with Bill and his wife.

Steve graduated from MSU in 1981 with a degree in ag engineering. When he graduated, there was an opportunity to expand the operations. At the time, they were managing Skone and Connors' operations in Dillon as well as growing their own.

Nowadays, Steve focuses on field planning, seed sales and marketing, and David is in charge of shipping, cutting and planting. During the winter, Steve handles accounting and David manages the shop, ordering parts and monitoring the warehouses. Steve's wife, Cathy, is the office manager, handling bookkeeping, HR, payroll and bill paying.

During the peak season, the Cottoms have 20 or more employees on the payroll, but during the slow time of the year they have seven, including two mechanics in the shop.

"During the summer, everybody does everything. We're all involved with the irrigation and the production-type stuff out in the field," Steve says. While Bill is still involved to a degree, such as driving tractors, Steve points out, "Dad is mostly retired at this point. His primary focus is golf."

Cottom Seed grows about 450 to 500 acres of potatoes a year, which includes Rangers, Burbanks, Rio Grandes and Norkotah line selections 278 and 3. Most of their seed goes to Washington and Oregon, but they do sell seed for re-certification in Montana, Idaho and Oregon. They typically average about 300 to 400 cwt per acre in sandy loam soil, though the soil varies, underneath about 25 irrigation pivots. Their rotational crops include spring wheat, barley and alfalfa in a seven- to nine-year rotation. Out of that rotation, usually two years are devoted to potatoes.

As foundation seed growers, everything starts with nuclear stock produced from meristem culture in a greenhouse. Jolene Brush provides the greenhouse stock from her isolated greenhouses in the mountains near Norris, Mont. The original cuttings come from the Montana Potato Improvement Lab at MSU. In the field, the Cottoms put out 12-14,000 numbered flags each summer for virus testing. A picking crew pulls 10 leaf samples for each flag, which represents a unit to be tested. The identity of each test has to be retained so the proper plants can be identified in the field when there is a positive test.

"It's a pretty intensive virus testing program we have in Montana as part of the certification," he says. "We also have three inspections for visual disease symptoms and do a sample of each lot at harvest to be sent to Hawaii for winter testing. This ensures the integrity of the seed was retained through harvest."


Montana Efficiency

Steve says that having your "ducks in a row" and being organized is important in southwestern Montana to have a successful operation.

"We have a very short growing season," he says. "When it's time to go, it's time to go. Being organized, knowing the climate and the risks is what we really pay attention to and what's made us successful."

Typically, they plant the last two weeks in May, with Memorial Day as their goal. They prefer to commence harvesting the third week in September, with October 10 as their "mental deadline," when they're due for a hard freeze.

While the short growing season is a risk, the winters are actually a good thing for them.

"We don't get much snow cover in the valley, and our ground freezes deep, so we don't have any volunteer potatoes."

Over the years, their production techniques have evolved. Equipment and its reliability have improved. They use GPS, spreadsheets and internet resources to track, analyze and research almost everything. One of the biggest things they've done to streamline production was building new storage and moving their own seed stock from town to a new facility on their farm, centralizing their operation into one spot.

"There are days when we're still shipping to customers, and we're cutting and planting our own crop. Now we can jump back and forth, load trucks out and be right back over cutting in a few minutes," he says. "The new storage has created a lot of efficiency for us in the spring, and shortened up our hauls at harvest also."

GPS has helped out a lot too.

"As the equipment got bigger and harder to have a feel for, GPS has allowed us to do everything better as far as marking out, keeping them straight and spacing properly."

They're also putting a lot of pivots on telemetry this year, so they can monitor those remotely. Using their elevation drop to their advantage, they eliminated a lot of electrical pumps about 15 years ago when they put in gravity irrigation.

"Most of our irrigation is on a gravity system," he says.

Industry Outlook

Bill served on the Montana Potato Improvement Association board for many years, serving as president many times. When he semi-retired, Steve took over his father's slot. Steve is also currently serving his third year on the United States Potato Board.

He says one of the frustrating things for seed growers is not knowing which new varieties to invest in, and which varieties will "burn" them after all the growing, promoting and investing.

"It takes us as foundation seed growers two or three years to get anything grown out to where we can provide seed for the market," he says. "We invest a lot of dollars doing that."

He says he would like to see the seed selections come from the other end first.

"I wish the supermarket chain would say, `We want this variety of potato,' and contact the commercial grower. That guy would go back to the seed grower and say, `Produce this.' I would rather it be that way, instead of us taking the crap shoot and saying, `Here are 10 new varieties-we think we'll try these three,' and hope one of them becomes an accepted variety."

Failed varieties are averaged into their operating costs. Right now, they're hopeful that Rio Grandes will gain some market share because of their nutritional value over other varieties and their nice cooking and taste attributes.

Steve sees the value in teaching consumers the difference between varieties. He points out that some of his acquaintances around Dillon don't even know there is more than one variety of russet. He's convinced that educating consumers on varieties will make cooking potatoes more appealing.

"I think it will make preparing potatoes more fun if they know they're cooking a variety that has more antioxidants, more vitamin C or is better for baking, potato salad or another particular use. I think that that's where it should go. It would be better for the consumer, and it'll be better for the industry if it can eventually evolve to that."