Like a Fish to Water

Lane Farms of La Grande, Ore.

Published online: Nov 25, 2013 Grower of the Month, Seed Potatoes Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in the November 2013 issue of Potato Grower.

Rob Lane’s childhood didn’t include hand lines or soil samples or fertilizers or tractors. He’d never heard of a digger link, and John Deere or Case was a debate he didn’t even know existed.

Yep, Rob Lane grew up a full-fledged city slicker in Seattle. But you’d never know it now. Today, he owns and operates Lane Farms in La Grande, Ore., specializing in certified Ranger Russet, Shepody and Russet Norkotah seed potatoes.

Lane got his start in the farming game when as a communications student at Washington State University he was introduced by family friends Pete Taggares, who owned a large commercial potato farm in Boardman, Ore., and had a seed operation in La Grande. In 1990, at the request of Taggares, Lane left school and came to the Grande Ronde Valley to replace Taggares’ retiring manager and learn how to become a potato farmer. Lane was initially offered a 25 percent share of the farm, and eventually was rewarded with half ownership and management responsibilities.

“I took to it like a fish to water,” Lane says. “Starting on the ground, planting something, watching it grow, and then having a commodity to sell at the end…I thought that was the neatest stuff.”

Pete Taggares passed away in 1998, and Lane bought Taggares’ share of the seed farm from Taggares’ widow. Since then, Lane Farms has dabbled in canola, coriander, sugar beets and radishes. But wheat and seed potatoes have remained the operation’s bread and butter. This year, Lane grew 275 acres of seed potato and 900 of wheat.

So how does a guy with zero agriculture experience succeed in the potato business? According to Lane, one of the biggest contributors to his success has been his involvement with other people in the industry. He has served as president of both the Oregon Seed Potato Growers Association and the Oregon Potato Commission’s Blue Mountain District.

“Being involved in those organizations has helped my individual operation immensely,” says Lane. “It’s given me the chance to meet commercial guys who have become great customers. And I think it goes both ways; involvement in the industry helps guys on both ends.”

Even though he didn’t complete his degree at WSU, Lane believes that gaining an education is vital for the industry’s youth if agriculture is to continue advancing and growing in an ever-changing world. Not one to be a hypocrite, he is currently taking classes to earn that degree he put off getting two decades ago. He wants his daughters, Marissa, 7, and Natasha, 5, to know how important that education is. “I want them to think that it’s important to go ahead and have a degree regardless of whether you’re a farmer or business executive or whatever you decide to do,” he says.

Additionally, Lane cautions growers against complacency on their own operations. In particular, Lane has been preemptive in his defense against potato psyllids and other pests. Though the Grande Ronde Valley has been spared these pests so far, Lane knows that growers in surrounding areas have had to deal with it and acknowledges that if he waits for them to come before preparing, he’ll be too late.

“We’ve got traps out [for psyllids],” he says. “We haven’t had to spray or anything like that because we haven’t seen them yet. There’s no doubt I’m fully prepared for it, though; it’s not going to be a big surprise if it does show up.” 

Lane believes that a vital part of running a farm—or any business—is being progressive and staying ahead of the technological curve. For example, he says he had never wanted a smartphone but saw the writing on the wall and moved forward with the times. And he hasn’t been afraid to try out the latest advances in agriculture, particularly when it comes to irrigation.

“I’m real big on chemigating,” Lane says. “And this variable-rate irrigation technology has made my job so much easier.”

To best take advantage of VRI, Lane has all his pivots’ control pads located at one central cluster. This allows him to set water and chemical application levels for dozens of different areas in every field, all from one location. He says that it makes all the difference in the world not to have to drive around to every pivot to make adjustments; it even eliminates the need for a road out to each pivot.

“You always regret buying the cheapest, but you never regret buying the best that you can afford,” Lane says. “And I’ve got to tell you, there’s something to that slogan. I swear by that slogan, actually. It actually works.”

When asked what he sees as the biggest obstacle to the potato industry going forward, Rob Lane doesn’t hesitate. “Processors and growers don’t seem to ever know what each other need far enough in advance,” he says. “We need to know how much of which varieties to grow.”

While he notes that it is difficult to predict what future consumers will want to spend money on, Lane says that in order for processors to have the varieties and amounts they need at the right time, three- to five-year plans need to be developed and effectively communicated all the way up and down the supply chain. “A commercial guy needs to know what his buyer needs, and then he needs to let the seed grower, who is me, know. All that takes time.”

As Lane sees it, that disconnect is just another hurdle to be cleared, one he trusts the industry to make it over. After all, if you can turn a city kid into a farmer, anything’s possible.