Not Just a Pretty Face

Mark Coombs of Middleton, Idaho

Published online: Nov 04, 2015 Grower of the Month
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This article appears in the 2015 Idaho Annual issue of Potato Grower

It’s only 9:30 on a late September morning, but it’s already shaping up to be another hot day in the Treasure Valley. The dust that always accompanies potato harvest has been floating in the air at Mark Coombs’s farm west of Middleton for a couple hours now, and Coombs is bouncing around from field to transloading site to cellar with an energy and enthusiasm that belie his more than 30 years in the business.

“I never ask anyone here to do anything I’m not able and willing to do, and that I haven’t done a hundred times myself,” says Coombs. He says it with the seriousness that is common to growers who have built their lives on gritted teeth, back pain and smashed fingers, yet with an almost youthful joy that lets you know there’s nothing in the world he’d rather be doing.

Mark Coombs grew up the fourth and youngest son of Dean Coombs, who, as Mark puts it, “took this farm out of the brush” in 1950. One by one, each of his brothers grew up and left the farm, but the farm in Middleton was Mark’s home, and he wanted in. After attending BYU, he returned in 1978 to help his father run the farm.

“It’s always been one of my dreams to be on the farm,” Coombs says. “I often wonder what it would’ve been like if I’d done something different. You always wonder what the future would’ve held, but this is what I wanted.”

If he had done something different, the Coombs property may never have had a potato grown on it. Beef cattle had been the backbone of the operation since Dean had settle in the area in 1950. Around the time of Dean’s death in 1984, the decision was made to transition to row crops, primarily wheat and corn. Then, in 1989, Mark was visiting with his close friend Mike Wagner, who farmed just a few miles away. Neither had ever grown potatoes, but the crop was booming in western Idaho, and the two neighbors decided they could each make a go of it.

“We just said, ‘If these other guys can do it, so can we,’” recalls Coombs. “Mike and I have been in it together since we started growing potatoes. We’ve helped each other a lot, and he’s become a very good friend to me.”

In the mid-‘90s, Mark’s oldest brother Brent returned to the farm and has played an integral role in pushing the family’s success in the potato industry.

These days, the Coombses consistently harvests 300 acres of Russet Burbanks annually on a five-year rotation. The potato game has been good to Mark Coombs and his family, and he’s been sure to pay back to the industry when and where he can.

Coombs is perhaps best known as the face of Idaho potato growers in the Idaho Potato Commission’s series of commercials that have run on national television the past three years. He says he’s not sure how the IPC and its public-relations team decided he was the best choice to appear in the commercials, but says he’s relished the opportunity.

“The first year I shot that commercial,” Coombs says with a chuckle, “I just stood there in front of the camera, and it was really difficult. You know your lines, but you’re speechless. But after the second or third year, you start knowing the production crew, and you get pretty comfortable. You become pretty good friends.”

Thanks to the commercial, Coombs has gained a little notoriety. But the most important part of the potato industry to Coombs remains what it always has been: the ground his father cleared and on which he grew up, and the family he has raised on that ground. His oldest son, Kyle, has returned to the family operation, and other children may follow suit. Coombs’s wife, Susan, still works each day by his side, personifying the family’s do-whatever-it-takes attitude.

“The only way I could have made this family farm work all these years,” Mark says, “is with the help of a very supportive and incredibly capable wife. She has as much to do with our success as anyone.

“We’ve never had a time where things were so bad we thought we might not pull through it,” he continues. “We’ve been very, very blessed.”