They say everything’s bigger in Texas. Bigger personalities. Bigger hats. Bigger country. Bigger men.
The Lone Star State was the inspiration behind such literary classics as Friday Night Lights and Lonesome Dove. Without Texas, there would be no Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers or—heaven forbid—George Strait. It has provided America with three presidents and millions of cattle.
But when it comes to potatoes, Texas sits just 13th among the 50 states in acres harvested. Only one one-hundredth of a percent of Texas’ total landmass is dedicated to growing potatoes.
But the Barrett family of the Texas Panhandle has proven for some 75 years that growing potatoes can be done—and done successfully—in Texas. In 1939, Fred Barrett was a potato grower in Wendell, Idaho. That fall, he met a farmer and a real estate developer from Texas who were in Idaho studying irrigation methods. Before long, Fred took a trip to the Panhandle with his new acquaintances, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1940 Fred Barrett moved his family south, and today three farms—Springlake Potatoes, Richard Barrett Produce and Seminole Produce—carry on the Barrett name and tradition of excellence.
“Fred just saw an opportunity,” says Fred’s great-grandson Keith, who along with his father Richard takes care of most of the Barretts’ marketing needs. “There was good water and not a lot of potatoes being grown and he would have freight advantages against other growers. I don’t know if he was the first, but he was one of the first potato growers in Texas.”
Growing a crop like potatoes has its unique challenges in Texas that growers in the Northwest, Northeast, or Upper Midwest often don’t face. There’s a reason that not many potato growers choose to ply their trade in the state. The Barretts grow their potatoes on a stretch of highly erodible sand hills. That soil, combined with the Panhandle’s extreme heat and wind, means that Barrett potatoes always have to be planted into a cover crop (usually wheat). The conditions are hardly ideal for growing potatoes. But the Barretts take great pride in doing what they do where they do it.
“That’s one of the things we’ve learned over time, is that we can’t just go plant in bare ground because it blows so bad here,” says Keith Barrett.
Being one of the only growers in Texas gives the Barretts a few unique advantages to go along with those challenges. Each year, the Barrett farms harvest between 1,000 and 1,500 acres of reds and russets, all grown for the fresh market under pivot irrigation. Much of their crop will stay in Texas, but they also ship a lot to the potato-needy areas of the Deep South and Northeast. “We have a huge freight advantage over growers in the West when it comes to shipping east,” says Keith.
When asked what challenges facing the potato industry are the most pressing, Keith doesn’t hesitate. “The biggest challenge is supply and demand and trying to define consumption of potatoes,” he says. “I feel like a lot of times we’re our own worst enemy fighting over what we’re producing. The market will always fix itself; growers need to trust that.”
The Barretts have trusted the market, their techniques, and hard work, and it’s paid off. Potato production might not be bigger in all of the Lone Star State, but up in the Panhandle, it’s safe to say that it is.