Seed Grower of the Year: Mark Johnson of Picabo, Idaho

Published in the January 2014 Issue Published online: Jan 17, 2014 Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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If you’re in the seed potato industry, you’ve probably heard of and recognize Mark Johnson of Silver Creek Seed in Picabo, Idaho. Maybe it’s because he was featured as Potato Grower’s grower of the month in our August 2013 issue (pg. 24). But more likely it’s because of his successes and involvement in the industry.

Johnson has served on the United Seed Potato Board, the Potato Variety Management Institute (PVMI) board, and the PAC committee for the Idaho Crop Improvement Association (ICIA).

It’s for his contributions in those realms, as well as the commercial success of Silver Creek Seed, that ICIA has named Johnson its seed grower of the year.

Johnson and his wife of 27 years, Jill, make their living growing seed potatoes in the foot of the mountains in Picabo, on the northern edge of the Snake River Plain. It’s scenic country, and the Johnsons consider themselves lucky to be doing what they love in such a beautiful corner of the world. But Johnson wasn’t always sure he would be able to stay in the farming game.

After Mark and Jill Johnson were married in 1986, Mark began managing for his new father-in-law, Alan Cummins, a successful and established grower in southern Idaho. But when Cummins went out of production farming in 2005, Johnson found himself unprepared. Having grown up on a small farm and pursued that career for nearly two decades, he knew he didn’t want to do anything else.

So Johnson partnered with his friend Gerald Bashaw to buy out the Cummins farm, and in 2006, Silver Creek Seed was born. Johnson has since bought out Bashaw’s share of the operation and is now the sole owner of Silver Creek Seed.

Growing potatoes in Picabo and the surrounding areas brings with it some unique challenges. “The price of property is a lot higher over here than most other places, so we don’t own any of the land we farm out here,” says Johnson. “Renting ground can sometimes be a problem because most of the ground is owned by wealthy people from other places who don’t live up here.”

“Water is really going to be a big issue in the next year because all the reservoirs are empty in this area,” Johnson says. “We’re the only potato farm in the valley, and with renting ground, you’ve got to be competitive with barley and hay. So the water might make it harder this year.”

Johnson knows that growers everywhere face challenges unique to each situation and that growers have a lot to learn from one another. In his aforementioned roles in several industry trade groups, Johnson has seen firsthand the power of coming together as an industry. “I feel like being active in those groups, I’ve learned a tremendous amount of information. With United [Seed Potato Board], we’re continuously learning more about how to get better yields. And you learn a lot from your peers.

“I’m a seed grower, and sometimes we make some changes in the certification requirements, and it’s nice to know,” Johnson continues. “If you’re not involved in those organizations, I don’t know how you get the information you need to know.”

In the end, though, Mark and Jill Johnson know that it’s the simple things that make their business—and life—a success.

“You need to stay humble,” Mark says. “There’s a lot of ups and downs. Try to stay honest and make good decisions. If I can do that, it always works out.”