Like father, like son.
Back at the 69th Annual IGSA Convention in Sun Valley, a Lewisville native named Ronald J. Ball was awarded as the 1997 Russet Aristocrat.
This year, 16 years later, his son Carl, who runs Ball Brothers Produce in Lewisville, has been chosen as the 2013 Russet Aristocrat.
Ball Brothers Produce began in Lewisville in 1942, started by Ronald and his brothers, Vernon and Leland. The three brothers farmed potatoes, hay and grain, expanding ground into Monteview and Hamer as well as purchasing 1,000 head of sheep in order to start a sheep company.
After Vernon and Leland eventually passed away, Ronald purchased the business and brought on his three sons, R.J., Carl and Robert.
Carl started out as a “typical farm boy,” doing whatever chores needed to be done. He was raised in Lewisville, where ground was flood-irrigated. That eventually evolved into hand lines before becoming center pivots. The operation itself evolved as well—potato ground gradually moved from Lewisville to Monteview and Hamer. While the packing shed is still in Lewisville, they have no potato acreage there.
After Carl graduated from high school, he attended Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho, before and after serving a full-time mission for his church. He then attended BYU in Provo, Utah, in 1973. While attending an Ag Economics class, he was given some life-changing advice from his professor, the department chair. The teacher addressed one of Carl’s first classes with something he has never forgotten—something that sent him right back to the farm.
The professor said, “If you’re going to farm, you may as well check out and start farming. You’ll hire somebody to do all the stuff I’m going to teach you. Go home and start building your equity.”
Carl did just that, and he’s been with the family business ever since. He says his teacher’s advice has proven true—he’s hired others to do what he would’ve learned in that class.
What Idaho Does Best
Hamer Farms, the farm operation under Ball Brothers Produce, grows 3,500 acres of wheat, alfalfa and potatoes. The only potato variety they grow is Russet Burbank.
Ball says that Idaho made the mistake years ago of becoming a “me-too” state by growing russet varieties other than Burbanks.
“We’ve lost our uniqueness,” he says.
Because Idaho switched to non-Russet Burbank varieties such as Norkotah, a variety other states can grow just as well, the niche we’ve always had was lost.
“Idaho doesn’t demand a premium anymore in the market because of that, I believe.”
In some ways, that migration from what we’ve always done well to what our competitors are doing well is similar to the New Coke debacle in the 1980s. Coca-Cola dominated the market share for most of the 20th Century, but by 1983 Pepsi-Cola had gained so much traction that Coke’s market share had declined to 24 percent.
In order to gain it back, Coca-Cola reformulated its flagship soft drink and reintroduced it in 1985. The public’s reaction was so negative—some people saying that Coke now tasted more like Pepsi—that Coca-Cola returned to its original formula after only three months. By the end of the year, “Coca-Cola Classic,” as it was now being called, was substantially outselling Pepsi. To this day, New Coke is considered the benchmark of failure by which all marketing failures are compared.
In contrast to New Coke, russet varieties such as Norkotah have made plenty of money, and so Ball doesn’t blame growers for growing them.
“They pack out better, they get a better return, so it makes economic sense in the short run.”
And to consumers, Norkotahs are “eye candy”—they look better.
“It’s not like an apple,” he says. “They don’t get immediate recognition that it’s a different variety. The housewife doesn’t connect that the variety is why it doesn’t taste as good as it used to.”
One problem with the Idaho potato industry is that consumers haven’t been taught the difference between russet varieties in the supermarket—although, when it comes to apples, consumers have shown they’re fully capable of knowing the difference.
“My wife, when she wants me to buy apples, says, ‘Go buy this variety.’ She knows exactly what she wants. I personally think that’s what we need to instill in consumers.”
He points out that the foodservice industry knows the difference. Ball has a daughter who teaches culinary education at a magnet school in Las Vegas, and she has to repeatedly tell suppliers what variety she wants—even sending back the wrong varieties.
Whereas Coca-Cola immediately switched back to its instantly recognizable original, the potato industry is complicated enough and enough time has passed that the same solution may not work for the Idaho potato industry.
Ball says he doesn’t know what the answer is going forward.
“I don’t see any way to reverse that at this point,” he says. “Pandora is out of the box. We’re not going to put her back in.”
The Idaho Potato Commission publishes a shipper directory that shows and explains the differences between varieties, but as Ball points out, the directory doesn’t reach the average consumer.
Success in Hamer
Hamer Farms starts planting potatoes April 15–20, and starts harvesting around Sept. 20. Most of the Burbanks are for the fresh market, but they have a small dehy contract.
Out in Hamer, they deal with typical Idaho pests such as Colorado Potato Beetles, and they work to prevent nematode infestations. They’ve never as yet seen psyllids. The soil is very sandy, which, as Carl calls it, is practically “hydroponic gardening.”
“The soil is so sandy that what you put in is what you get out,” he says. “It’s easier to grow a better type of potato because of the sand.”
The drawback is that he has high input costs—because they have to put everything in the soil.
Ball Brothers is partly successful because they pack a quality product, bring in return customers and have an “excellent” warehouse manager, named Sam Echeverria.
Ball met his wife, Julene, who is originally from Burley, when they attended Ricks College. They have five children and 14 grandchildren. Daughter Emily has five children and is married to Trever Belknap, who works in the warehouse at Ball Brothers. Son James has four kids and is a master electrician/foreman at Nephi Electrical in Rexburg. Daughter Sara has four kids, and her husband, Jordan, works for Hamer Farms. Daughter Nancy is a high school teacher in Soda Springs, and son Vaughn has one child and is a Cummins Rocky Mountain field service technician in Elko, Nev.
For his years of service to the industry, the Idaho Grower Shippers Association is happy and pleased to present the 2013 Russet Aristocrat Award to Carl Ball.