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Growers Jerry & Ryan Nelson of Bow, Wash.

Published online: Oct 27, 2017 Grower of the Month Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in the November 2017 issue of Potato Grower.

The Skagit Valley of far northwestern Washington is, without question, one of the prettiest places you’ll ever see. Verdant farm fields push up against lush, forested foothills, which give way in the distance to towering, glacier-covered mountains. You can taste the salt in the air blowing in from nearby Bellingham, Padilla and Skagit Bays. The soil is fertile, and the weather is, for the most part, fairly mild. The families who have worked the ground in the valley for generations understand and appreciate just how beautiful the place they call home is.   

The problem is, a lot of other people have come to realize the same thing.

“The world has found the Skagit Valley,” says Ryan Nelson, a third-generation potato grower in Bow, Wash. “The city limits have taken in lots of farmland over the years. But growth is growth, and this area was going to grow.”

 

Holding Back the Asphalt

Nelson and his father, Jerry, farm on the same ground just west of Interstate 5 that Jerry’s own father, Norm Nelson, started growing potatoes on in the late 1930s. While the nearby city of Burlington has continued to grow, the Nelsons’ place still feels like it’s out in the country

“We’ve been able to protect our agricultural zoning, despite the urban sprawl,” says Jerry. “But we are on the I-5 corridor. There’s a lot of pressure in Burlington to expand the city limits west of I-5. We feel once you do that, it’s like a cancer; it’s just going to grow. Everybody seems to be on board in the community as a whole to maintain the zoning, and that’s really important for us.”

That concerted effort from the community to maintain the Skagit Valley’s agricultural integrity has been vital to the success of the Nelsons’ operation—Norm Nelson, Inc., which consists of the farm and a fresh-pack shed in Burlington—and the growth of the potato industry in the area.

“We’re a big proponent for the success of Skagit County,” says Ryan. “Agriculture as a whole needs to be alive and well for us to do well.”

“In order for Norm Nelson, Inc. to do well, we need Skagit County agriculture to do well,” agrees Jerry. “Otherwise, it’s all going to get eaten up with asphalt.”

 

All About Potatoes

When Norm Nelson, who passed away in 1984, struck out on his own in the late 1930s, he knew he wanted to grow potatoes.

“He never really reminisced a lot about it,” says Jerry. “But I think he wanted to be a potato farmer for two reasons: One, he really liked potatoes; and two, he could have control of what he grew if he got his own packing facility.”

In the early years, Norm included cabbage for seed in his crop rotation. When World War II ended in 1945, the price for cabbage seed skyrocketed as millions of Americans rushed to plant victory gardens. The upswing in the cabbage market was a major boon to the farm. But, in an act of impressive prescience, Nelson pulled out of the cabbage business for good in 1946.

“He decided, ‘Cabbage isn’t what I’m going to do; potatoes are what I’m going to do,’” Jerry Nelson says now. “And the price of cabbage seed turned out to only be good for that one year. He took that money and put it back into potatoes. That’s what helped him buy the packing facility in Burlington.”

While the original packing shed no longer stands, Norm Nelson, Inc.’s current, much larger, modernized facility sits on the same plot of land. The Nelsons pack and sell all their own potatoes all over the continent, from San Francisco to Montréal.   

“We like to feel that we’re quality-driven and that they like our product,” says Ryan. “We’re very proud of our label.”

“My father’s position on growing potatoes is the same as ours is now,” says Jerry. “If it doesn’t work for potatoes, he doesn’t do it. Everything revolves around potatoes. Everything we do now is all about potatoes.”

 

Good Ground, Good Help

The Nelsons credit much of their success to the nearby Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center and plant pathologist Debbie Inglis, who has been integral in aiding not only the Nelsons’ operation, but the entire Skagit Valley agricultural community.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have Debbie there,” says Jerry. “She’s planning on retiring in a year, and it’s important that we get WSU to replace her with someone really good.”

The land on which the Nelsons farm today is almost exclusively owned or on long-term leases, providing stability and familiarity not afforded many large operations. At only about 10 feet above sea level and with upwards of 6 percent organic matter in the soil, it has proven to be very good ground for the family. Potatoes are on a four-year rotation with barley, feed corn and grass for pasture. Each year, the Nelsons buy replacement dairy heifers to graze on their pasture, then sell the heifers to local dairies in the fall. Ten to 12 yellow, red and white potato varieties are grown and marketed on the place each year, making that familiarity with the land invaluable.

“Having farmed the same ground for the amount of years my family has farmed this ground, we’ve got a lot of history with it,” says Ryan. “We’re not going into each season on a hope and prayer with new ground. We’re farming very familiar ground. I think it’s part of what has made my father and our family successful.”

“We think we really have something to offer—a good life,” says Jerry. “Because it is a good life here, and we’d like to see it continue on for generations.”