An Unexpected Journey

Dan Kimm Seed Potatoes of Manhattan, Mont.

Published online: Apr 04, 2017 Grower of the Month
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This article appears in the December 2016 issue of Potato Grower

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” 

J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit


Jack Meyer never envisioned himself in a place like Montana. And he certainly never thought he’d be making key agronomic and financial decisions on a generations-old family farm. (Heck, 20 years ago, Meyer didn’t even know most of those decisions had to be made by someone.) Yet here he is, on a cloudy October day in the Gallatin Valley, fielding phone calls and directing the sometimes hectic traffic of a bountiful potato harvest.

Dan Kimm didn’t ever plan on retiring early. He could never have envisioned himself ceding management and leadership to someone who, had times been different, he might have deemed too young and inexperienced for such a role. Yet here he is, pulling the harvester without a care in the world except filling the truck, knowing full well he can call it a day whenever he chooses, and trusting fully that any crisis that arises will be ably handled by someone else

The story of how these two men's paths converged is in many ways familiar, but it is oh so unique.

 

From the Jungle…

Meyer was born in Nigeria and spent most of his youth in small, remote villages in Sierra Leone. His parents were American but as devout Christians, had felt a strong desire to share their faith and charity with those less fortunate than themselves. So they raised their young family, Jack included, way back in the African bush.

“I grew up with natives who wore grass skirts and lived in mud huts,” says Meyer. “We made our own bows and arrows and slingshots. I played in the jungle every day.”

Sierra Leone’s civil war forced the Meyers to leave the country and return to the U.S. in the early 1990s. They settled in Denver, where—though initially struggling with the English language—Jack attended and graduated from high school. He chose to attend Calvin College, a small, traditionally Dutch Protestant school in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

 

…To the Mountains

A degree isn’t the only thing Meyer earned at Calvin. While there, he met Jami Kimm, “a nice little Dutch girl who dragged me back home to the farm,” he says. “I’ve been here ever since.”

The young couple married in 1999, and Jack went to work for Jami’s father, Dan Kimm, whose family has been farming in Manhattan, Mont., for generations. Dan himself began growing seed potatoes on 20 acres in 1971, right after his own high school graduation. He purchased his own equipment for the first time in 1974 (“old, used equipment,” he notes with a wry smile) and built his first potato storage in 1976. With potato prices in the dirt and interest rates through the roof, the ‘70s were not an easy time to build up a potato farm. But bit by bit, Dan Kimm did it.

“It was an always ongoing process,” he says, “to start from next to nothing and build it into what it is today. But over the years we progressed.” Today, Dan Kimm Seed grows some 500 acres of Russet Burbank, Umatilla Russet and Russet Norkotah seed on a four-year rotation.

 

Back to School

After Jack married Jami, he worked on the farm as a general laborer and was happy doing it. After about five years, however, he began feeling he should offer more to the farm. He made the decision to return to school at nearby Montana State University, where he earned a master’s in plant pathology.

“That was a huge turning point,” Jack says. “I started looking at farming from a different perspective. It gave me the scientific exposure and backing as to why we did everything. That’s when things started clicking for me, and that’s when I really started to look at farming as a really unique opportunity. It painted a different picture for me of what we do. I just found a real passion for it.”

The timing couldn’t have been better for the farm and, more importantly, for the family. In 2009, Dan’s wife Jan was diagnosed with cancer, which ultimately took her life in 2012. In the midst of struggling through his wife’s health issues, Dan fell from the top of a grain bin while working one day and severely injured the rotator cuff in his right shoulder; the residual effects of the injury still limit the joint’s movement. Dan naturally took a step back from the farm, and Jack was there to fill in.

“It put my feet to the fire,” Jack says now. “I was given challenges before I was ready, but when you put somebody up against adversity, they rise to the occasion. Had I never had the opportunity to do that, maybe I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”

In the ensuing years, Jack has kept many things on the farm the same. But he has made a few significant changes. One that has paid major dividends is reducing potato row spacing from 36 to 28 inches, creating five-row seedbeds in a 12-foot space.

“My main goal in doing that is not necessarily to create a bigger yield,” says Jack, “but to produce better seed. It’s given us smaller, smoother potatoes with lower call-out and better uniformity.”

 

Bright Future

“Had things played out differently, I was not ready to retire,” says Dan. “I love farming; I love it with a passion. But the kids wanted to get started too. My dad gave me an opportunity to start farming when I was young, and it was time to move on. Jack and Jami know how to farm and are doing a good job.”

“When I told my family I was going up to Montana, one aunt told me, ‘You know, you can’t live off of scenery,’” Jack recalls as he looks out at the fields around the farmhouse where Dan was born and raised and where Jack and Jami are now raising their children. “I think I’m doing pretty darn good living off of scenery.”