The late Muriel Siebert, the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, once explained her strategy for overcoming obstacles thus: “I put my head down and charge.”
In many ways, it can be said that the Sackett family of Mecosta, Mich., has taken Siebert’s model and made it their own.
“I guess I don’t know what’s made us succeed for so long,” says fifth-generation potato grower Brian Sackett. “We just do our job. We work hard and take pride in what we’re doing.” And what the Sacketts do best is grow potatoes.
The name Sackett has been synonymous with potatoes in central Michigan for a long time. A five-generation legacy means a lot of potatoes and a lot of Sacketts. In 1987, Alan Sackett, then a partner on the original Sackett home farm with his brothers, realized the arrangement simply wasn’t going to work out going forward. So he moved 30 miles to the north and—with his sons Brian and Jeff—leased a farm with 1,200 acres of irrigated land and good storage facilities. That first growing season saw about 400 acres of potatoes harvested.
Since then, the Sacketts have bought the farm and increased its size to nearly 7,000 acres. Over half of that—around 3,500 acres in a given year—is dedicated to potatoes bound for the chip market, primarily Atlantics and Snowdens, along with several Frito-Lay varieties. The Sacketts’ storage capacity has also grown considerably, from 90,000 cwt. to over 1 million cwt. today. Along with their potato operation, Sackett Potatoes also grows feed corn for local ethanol plants and seed corn for Pioneer.
As if everything in Michigan weren’t enough to keep them busy, in 2012 the Sacketts also took over operation of a 1,300-acre potato farm in North Carolina. Those potatoes are followed each year by second-crop soybeans. “We were looking for opportunities,” says Brian Sackett “Pat McCotter in North Carolina was retiring from farming, so his farm was available, and he was in the chip potato industry also. An investment company bought the farm, and we’re renting it for potatoes.”
Having two operations in such different parts of the country certainly keeps the Sacketts on their toes. North Carolina planting begins in early March with harvest in June and July; the Michigan growing season runs from the beginning of May through October, and storage shipments run all the way up through the next May. “So we ship potatoes basically every single month of the year,” says Brian.
Sure, expanding has been a lot of work, and it hasn’t always been easy. There have been obstacles. But, as is the case with so many thousands of farm families, hard work has never scared the Sacketts away. The whole family, including Brian’s wife and office manager Abby, knows that hard, smart work always pays off. When those obstacles have come, they’ve carefully assessed each situation, come up with a plan, then put their heads down and charged.
Brian Sackett believes that’s the attitude the potato industry as a whole needs to have in order to succeed going forward. To that end, the family has striven to be as involved in the industry as they can be, especially locally. Brian has sat on the Michigan Potato Industry Commission (MPIC) since 2006 and is currently that commission’s vice-chair. He adds that since 1997 he’s been the chairman of the Storage and Handling Committee with MPIC. “That committee designed and is managing a demonstration storage where we do variety trial work,” says Brian. But, in typical self-effacing fashion, Brian says simply that “being involved gives us something productive to do when there’s down time.”
One of the biggest obstacles the Sacketts are faced with is the sandy soil typical of the region. “Soil health is really important to us because we’re so sandy,” says Brian. “And there’ve been potatoes on our ground for a long time, so we’re working really hard on soil health and putting everything back into the ground that we can, kind of rebuild the old potato ground. We want to make sure the ground’s productive for the future generation.”
Brian’s son Tyler, representing that future generation, is set to graduate from Michigan State University in May. Brian hopes Tyler plans to carry on the Sackett legacy of growing quality potatoes. And he trusts future generations to continue to improve on the legacy he and his predecessors have built.
“I’m excited for the potato industry for the future,” says Brian. “I think there’s a lot of potential for the industry to stay strong. Technology is going to keep improving. There’s new breeding technology that hopefully in the next 10 years is going to get us better varieties to work with.”
The 19th century English writer and theologian G.K. Chesterton once said, “When it rains on your parade, look up rather than down. Without the rain, there would be no rainbow.” The Sackett family understands this. They know that in between all those head-down charges, it’s important to look up, take a look at your goal, and appreciate the journey ahead.
“There’s a lot of great people who are leading the potato industry in this country, who have got a lot of foresight for the future,” Brian Sackett says.
Do you think he knows he’s one of them?