The Main Thing

Mark Johnson of Picabo, Idaho

Published in the August 2013 Issue Published online: Aug 29, 2013 Michael Deulley, Staff Writer
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"N ice View. As the only potato grower in the valley of Picabo, Idaho, Mark Johnson and company have a unique view.

Located about 56 miles north of the Snake River and nestled in the valleys of Picabo, Idaho, sits the nearly 700 acres of Silver Creek Seed, a potato seed operation spearheaded by owner Mark Johnson and his wife, Jill. One look at these fields and it's easy to see that potatoes are Johnson's business, and business is good. But this story doesn't begin in greatness, but rather hard-work and humility. What is now a successful agricultural business started as any success story begins: with its roots in the soil.


History in the Making

Johnson grew up in Hazelton, Idaho, where his father, originally an electrician by trade, farmed 120 acres of beans and wheat. Being raised on a farm, he quickly developed a grower's attitude toward hard work. Stacking the cards in his favor at an early age, Johnson was honing the skills and industrious work ethic necessary to fuel what would become a profitable and exciting future.

As Johnson grew, he explored his options in life as most young men do. He attended the College of Southern Idaho (CSI) as a student in forestry services. It was during his time in college when, in 1986, he met his future wife, Jill Cummins. Jill is the daughter of Allen and Judy Cummins, who, at the time along with two of his brothers, ran a very large and profitable commercial and seed potato operation.

At the request of his new father-in-law, Johnson left CSI and began working on the farm under the leadership of the Cummins family. He remained a dedicated farm hand for 19 years. During his time on the Cummins' farm, Johnson learned the tricks of the trade, obtaining critical skills and knowledge needed to operate a potato farm. Life seemed to be set for Johnson, his wife and their growing family. Then, abruptly, in 2005 the Cummins stopped their farm production and Johnson found himself searching for new income.

"I was unemployed, sitting in the parking lot, wondering what I was going to do," Johnson says.

What had been a promising career in the agricultural industry seemed to be crashing down around him. The time that Johnson invested in the fields had left him with little options on where to turn, and left him questioning his next move. Luckily, the years spent tending and harvesting didn't go unnoticed. Gerald Bashaw, a friend of Johnson, had his eye set on his incredible work ethic and determination to excel in business and teamed up with Johnson to start a new chapter in the potato industry. A partnership was born, and a new seed operation was in full swing.

"Gerald put up the money and financing, we both invested in equipment, and the farm began," he says.

Having the right friends and the sharp mind for business, Johnson and Bashaw's Silver Creek Seed operation broke ground in 2006, and-with the dedication and tireless labor of a true grower-has grown exponentially in the years since. Although the business was profitable and thriving, the high cost of land in the area has kept Johnson from owning his own. He rents his cultivatable land from nearby growers in the Bellevue Triangle, Picabo and Carey areas. Since business has begun to see astounding financial growth, he has intentions of reaching for more.

"Right now we grow about 690 acres of seed. We started out with Russet Burbanks and Rangers, which were shipped to parts of Washington and the Magic Valley. But when we started to become more successful, we diversified to other varieties including yellows and reds, and ship anywhere from California to Wisconsin," Johnson continued. "Eventually, we'd like to include barley and buy some land of our own."

The seed of industry planted back in 2006 has grown into a national business and shown Johnson to be a potato farming dynamo. This success has given Johnson not only the ability to pay off his equipment in full, but in 2011, he bought the business from Bashaw and became sole owner of Silver Creek Seed. With his feet in the soil and his aim on the stars, Johnson's drive and hard work has created an agricultural operation that-just like his potatoes-will continue to flourish and grow.


Back to Business

Johnson currently serves as the chairman for United Seed Potato Board, serves on the PAC committee for Idaho Crop Improvement Association and has served on the Potato Variety Management Institute (PVMI) board. Being an active member in the industry has helped Johnson become a more aware and prosperous grower. He also gives credit to all of the people in his life that made his business possible. Nowadays, if Johnson isn't deliberating the logistical side of potato farming, he can be found out in the fields, doing what he does best.

"My wife's uncle, who was also my boss at the time, had a plaque on his desk that read, `The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing,'" Johnson said, laughing. "That's what potatoes are to me: the main thing."