Wonderful Life

IGSA's 2017 Russet Aristocrat Kevin Webster

Published online: Aug 03, 2017 Grower of the Month Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in the program/yearbook for the 2017 convention of the Idaho Grower Shippers Association. 

As a young man freshly graduated from Rexburg’s Madison High, Kevin Webster still wasn’t completely sure what career path he wanted to pursue. He had grown up on the family farm on the Rexburg Bench and enjoyed the lifestyle such an occupation offered. He knew the family history and deeply appreciated all his forebears had endured to turn the windy foothill country into the rich, abundant farmland it had become. But he had also developed an affinity for mechanical drawing and started classes at his hometown Ricks College in the fall of 1970 with one eye on becoming an architect.

When Webster’s father, Bert, tragically died in an accident on the farm that fall, however, the decision of what to do with his life became…Well, “easier” is not the right word; how could it be? But Kevin Webster stepped up and filled in for his family and their farm with a maturity that belied his age.

“That winter I really got thrown into farming. A lot of people were there to help me and go through that with me,” says this year’s IGSA Russet Aristocrat from his office at Webster Potato Company in Rigby, Idaho. “I’d never really driven the Caterpillar, but the next spring we needed someone to plant potatoes. So they stuck me on that tractor pulling a four-row Acme planter. I had to learn to drive that Caterpillar straight. That was my introduction to real farming.”

 

Proud History

The Websters have been farming on the Rexburg Bench since Kevin’s great-grandfather, James Whaley Webster, partnered with a Mr. Woodmansee in 1906 to take the ground out of sagebrush and begin dry farming wheat and barley.

“Everybody thought they were kind of nuts back then, farming up on the Bench,” says Webster. “Everyone though you needed to be in the lowlands to raise crops.”

The Websters ran a successful dry-farming operation until the early 1960s, when the first deep wells were drilled on the Rexburg Bench. Webster’s Deep Well Farm, as the family corporation aptly came to be called, began employing several wells, the deepest of which plunges 1,130 feet into the earth. With irrigation water now available in the high country, the Websters began growing that most Idahoan of crops, potatoes. They were among the first growers in the area to contract to raise malt barley, which has proven to be a great rotation crop with their potatoes for several decades now.   

“When we first got irrigation, I was about 10 or 12,” says Webster. “We started out with handlines. I remember moving pipe all through my younger years. We started switching to pivots about 1975, but I moved a lot of pipe in those days.” 

 

Family Growth

Webster continued to farm with his brothers, Kirk and Shawn, for several years after the death of their father, and the farm continued to grow. By the mid-1980s, the farm had grown to nearly 3,500 acres, one of the biggest outfits in the Upper Valley. The farm wasn’t the only thing growing; so was the family. Eventually, the brothers came to the conclusion that it would be best if they split into separate operations to keep as many of the next generation in the business as possible. The split was amicable, with each brother coming away with some 1,130 acres, and ultimately proved to be the best decision for all involved.

“We did it all on good terms. We’d seen other farmers who maybe held on a little too long,” says Webster. “We didn’t want that to happen with our family and our farm. At that time my share of the farm became Webster’s Inc.”

In the fall of 1996, Rigby Produce—which had just built a new facility—put its packing shed up for sale. In January 1997, Webster and his wife Janet, along with his brother Shawn, bought the shed in Rigby and started Webster Potato Company. A year later, cousins Rob and Shane Webster bought in as well.  

“We could see family needing more places to work,” says Webster, “but mostly we saw it as a good avenue to sell our own potatoes.”

It has indeed been a good avenue for the Websters’ potatoes. As the new company found its groove, Kevin Webster found himself spending more and more time at the packing shed and less on the farm. In 2001, he and Janet sold their home on the farm to his oldest son Jason and moved down to Rigby to be closer to the shed and the bulk of his work. Webster’s younger son, Jonathan (who is currently serving as chairman of the IGSA board of directors), eventually joined Webster Potato as manager.

 

Hard-Won Success

Webster served on the IGSA board of directors for seven years, from July 2002 to September 2009. He says he thoroughly enjoyed his time on the board, particularly the opportunities to meet so many of the great men and women in the potato industry.

“There’s a whole list of things that can go wrong with spuds; it’s usually a question of which ones are we working with today?” Webster says with a laughs. “But it keeps you aware and you learn to correct any problem quickly. You can’t stick your head in the sand and hope for it to go away, because that doesn’t happen with potatoes.

“One thing we’ve really tried to stress here is quality, and I think that’s what has kept us afloat.”

More than keeping them afloat, that commitment to quality—not just in product, but in integrity and relationships—has produced a lot of respect for Webster around the Idaho potato industry. Being awarded something like the Russet Aristocrat was never part of the plan. But that doesn’t make Webster any less deserving.