Where He Belongs

Seed grower Doug Parkinson of Ellis, Idaho

Published online: Nov 30, 2017 Grower of the Month Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in the December 2017 issue of Potato Grower.

You’ve probably never been to Ellis, Idaho. Janiel Parkinson sure hadn’t. Yet there she stood, in a potato field in Ellis—ZIP code 83235, population pretty much invisible—watching with genuine interest as her husband, Doug, demonstrated how to properly test soil moisture. Suddenly, a handful of soil was shoved under Janiel’s nose.

“Doesn’t that smell great?” said Doug, grinning fit to bust.

“At that moment,” Janiel says now, 23 years later, “I knew: This man is where he belongs.”

Doug Parkinson grew up in one of the most prolific seed potato-producing regions in the world, on his family’s farm in St. Anthony, Idaho, in full view of the Tetons. As a kid, he enjoyed the farm but had no intention of becoming a career farmer. After earning a degree in applied electrical engineering, Doug intended to pursue a career in robotics. In the early 1990s, he and his young wife, Janiel, were living near Portland, Ore., when they came to an important and ultimately life-altering realization.

“It’s pretty hard to take the farm out of the farm kid,” says Doug. “I had spent a little time in metropolitan USA and decided that wasn’t going to work. That wasn’t where I wanted to raise my family.”   

So, with some trepidation, he picked up the phone in the fall of 1993 and called back home, where his father, Bob, and brother, Dirk, were still running the farm. As fate would have it, Bob was in the process of purchasing land on which to raise foundation seed for the main farm in St. Anthony. After hunting all over the Northwest, he settled on a location the Pahsimeroi Valley of central Idaho. And someone needed to run it. So Doug and Janiel moved their young family to Ellis to build Parkinson Foundation Seed Farm, far from the reaches of metropolitan USA.

Bob Parkinson died in 1996 when the small plane he was piloting crashed in St. Anthony. It shook the family, and Doug admits now that he’s surprised the foundation farm survived. But survive it did, thanks in large part to Bob’s chosen location. Prior to the Parkinsons’ purchase of the farm, no potatoes had been grown in the Pahsimeroi Valley for at least 20 years. To this day, there isn’t another potato field within 40 miles of Parkinson Foundation Seed Farm. Surrounded by the high peaks of the Lemhi and Lost River Ranges, the farm is about as isolated as you’d like a seed farm to be, probably its most important attribute.    

“We’ve probably got as good of isolation as anybody in the state of Idaho for raising seed potatoes,” says Doug.

That isolation comes with its challenges. There are, after all, reasons nobody was growing potatoes in the area at the time Parkinson Foundation Seed Farm sprung up there.

“Our biggest asset is probably our isolation. It can be our biggest liability at times, too,” Doug says. “There’s no potato soil out here unless you make it. We’ve got one field where we picked 1,100 ten-wheeler loads of rock off 90 acres so we could grow spuds in it. I joke that I should have called my farm Parkinson Sand and Gravel.”

Overall, though, he says, the land has been good to the family, and the farm has grown. These days, Doug’s farm is a completely separate entity from his brother Dirk’s, though the two companies remain core business partners. Nearly all of Doug’s customers are seed growers in eastern and southern Idaho. Parkinson Foundation Seed Farm is home to 13 greenhouses, which produce the seed for the farm’s 40-acre nuclear plot. Beyond that, Parkinson grows about 500 acres of Generation 1 and 2 seed on a three-year rotation with wheat. Varieties for the 2017 season included Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet, Lamoka, Waneta, Chipeta, Clearwater and Yukon Gem. Though he has raised some 65 varieties over the years, Parkinson says he prefers to keep that number to about seven or eight at any one time. Nearly all the seed for the Parkinson greenhouses gets its start at the University of Idaho’s tissue culture lab in Moscow.

“The goal is to have all the seed come here in a Petri dish and leave on a semi,” Parkinson says. 

Parkinson was named Potato Grower’s 2016-17 Idaho Seed Grower of the Year. The success of his farm on the Salmon River has certainly earned such a distinction.

“Farming is a good life, but it’s not what you do because you don’t know what else to do,” says Janiel. “You have to be dedicated, and Doug certainly is.”

“I love farming; I love to watch things grow,” says Doug. “It’s fun to watch potatoes bulk. I like looking across a field with no weeds in it, and see it all even across the top. The hands-on part of farming—I just love it.”

There may not be many people who call Ellis, Idaho, home. But to Doug Parkinson and his family, that’s exactly what it is.