Island Life

The Fazio family of Sauvie Island, Ore.

Published online: Apr 01, 2017 Grower of the Month Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in the September 2016 issue of Potato Grower.

Sauvie Island is precisely the kind of place that comes to mind when people think of the Pacific Northwest. Formed by the confluence of the Willamette River, Multnomah Channel and mighty Columbia River, the island is dotted with small fields in which grow seemingly every vegetable grown to man, surrounded by lush, green, endless forest. On a clear day, the volcanic cones of Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens can be seen rising up from the horizon to the northeast.

Ponds and creeks dimple the island’s 24,000 acres; water is apparently never in short supply. Lewis and Clark literally put the island on the map after camping there in the spring of 1806, naming it Wappatoe Island and noting that it was “extremely fertile.”

Settled some 10 miles from downtown Portland, though, it is likely not what comes to mind when one considers the term “potato country.”

 

Productive Land

It was in this picturesque, almost idyllic setting that Antonio Fazio settled down and began farming after his immigration from Italy in the early 1940s. At the time, the Army Corps of Engineers was constructing dikes around much of the island to keep water levels down and provide more arable land. Antonio took advantage of the opportunity and began growing cabbage and pickling cucumbers.

Today, Antonio’s son, Jack, and grandson, David, carry on the Fazio legacy, operating JD Ranch (so named for Jack and David) on much of the same ground Antonio originally farmed. Taking advantage of Sauvie Island’s fertile soil, JD Ranch grows wheat, cabbage, field corn, raspberries, strawberries, marionberries, beans, broccoli, grass seed and, of course, some 600 acres of chipping potatoes.

“Our crop consultant says being a crop consultant in the Willamette Valley is the hardest job in the world,” David’s eldest son, AJ, says with a chuckle. “He’s got to know how everything grows, because you can grow pretty much everything here except tropical fruits.”

 

Swimming in It

Water is a major concern of growers the world over, and that’s no different for the Fazios. While many potato-growing regions of the U.S. are concerned about getting enough water, however, the Fazios worry about having too much of it.

“We have never once had to worry about having enough water,” says David Fazio. (Average annual rainfall in the area is about 40 inches. “In fact, almost every drop that rains on this island has to get pumped out. We spend $100,000 a year in electricity to get rid of water.”

The water level in the rivers surrounding Sauvie Island is often higher than much of the island’s farmland—especially during the winter months—and seeping water forms unwanted ponds and mud holes. A drainage district operates year-round to manage water levels on the island, and when water isn’t being used to irrigate, it’s getting pumped back into the rivers. With such a wet climate, fungal diseases—particularly late blight—are also a constant threat.

“Sometimes it just rains so much it’s tough to get anything done,” says David. “But this place is still pretty good to us.”

 

Chipping In

The Fazios began growing in the early 1980s after a neighboring farmer saw success growing for Frito-Lay. Contracts were secured with Frito-Lay and Blue Bell, and the JD Ranch potato operation was born. In 1986, an upstart Seattle chip company named Tim’s Cascade Snacks was founded. JD Ranch was one of Tim’s first potato suppliers, and today almost all the Fazios’ potatoes go to Tim’s.

“Tim’s has been a great partner for us,” says David. “We’ve always tried to give tham a good product. They’ve helped us during times when our quality may have been lower than we expected, and they’ve helped us when we’ve had oversupply of potatoes.

“Tim’s is always commenting how they like us because they never have to worry about us having a water shortage like a lot of their other growers.”

 

Not Going Anywhere

David Fazio’s four sons—DJ, CJ, BJ and AJ, aged 17 to 22, respectively—love Sauvie Island and love the farm. Each fully expects to live out his life working the land three prior generations have.

“We’re the kind of family that, when we go on vacation, it’s to another farm,” says AJ. “That’s what we really want to do. In fact, we’re going down to California next week just to see somebody’s new cabbage harvester.”

If other growers are smart, they’ll pack up the kids and head to Sauvie Island. The Fazios are excellent tour guides.