Unconventional Success

Sklarczyk Seed Farm of Johannesburg, Mich.

Published online: Jun 12, 2014 Grower of the Month, Seed Potatoes
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Sometimes, just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, an opportunity comes along that makes you stop in your tracks and reevaluate everything. The Sklarczyks of northern Michigan have been growing potatoes for three generations, and they’ve had a couple of these opportunities throw themselves headlong into the family’s path.

Mike and Theresa Sklarczyk bought the parcel of land the family still farms near Johannesburg in 1942. “They had your typical diversified farm,” says Ben Sklarczyk, Mike’s grandson and the farm’s current COO. “Cows, pigs, the whole thing. They were growing potatoes, and my grandpa was approached by another farmer who wanted him to grow seed for him.” When Mike asked his friend why, the response came back, “I take away my competition if you become my seed supplier.” Turning a competitor into a sort of a teammate seemed logical to Mike, and the Sklarczyks have been growing seed potatoes ever since.

In the early 1980s, Don Sklarczyk (Mike’s son and Ben’s father) and his wife Mary Kay, who had taken over the farm, were looking for ways to further reduce disease in their seed potato crop. In the course of his research Don discovered what was then the relatively new technology of tissue culture. Through a program at Cornell University, Don and Mary Kay learned all they could about the tissue culture process, and soon became one of the first potato operations in the U.S. to use that process to produce seed potatoes.

Tissue culture proved to be a successful route for the Sklarczyks, and they grew into a very successful greenhouse seed potato producer while maintaining their traditional in-the-ground seed farm. In the mid-1990s, one of the Sklarczyks’ suppliers approached them about producing mini-tubers in hydroponically, and, in typical Sklarczyk fashion, Don and Mary Kay took the opportunity and ran with it. Once again, it proved a wild success.

“It was my senior year of college that we were approached by a very large supplier,” Ben recalls. “They said ‘What you guys are doing in the greenhouse is very specialized. It takes special people and dedication to do what you guys do. Why don’t you stop the seed farm and just focus on the greenhouse? I think that’s going to serve you guys and serve the industry better.’”  The decision was made to do just that, and Sklarczyk Seed Farm hasn’t looked back.

“It was an adjustment for me because what I worked up to all through college was to be manager of the seed farm,” says Ben Sklarczyk. “So it was a big adjustment for both my dad and me. But once we committed to that adjustment, it was one of the best decisions we could’ve made as a business for ourselves and for the industry. That’s what really allowed us as a business to grow and to thrive and to produce for as many customers as we have right now.”

Ben explains that there were two primary reasons for switching to the hydroponic system. First, when growing potatoes in potting soil, as the greenhouse was before, plants can typically produce only two to five relatively larger tubers per plant. “With hydroponics,” he says, “you can control the size of the seed piece, so now it doesn’t need to be cut.”

The second reason is that, as Ben says, “we’re also able to take sterility a step further.” Growing plants without soil naturally makes the goal of less disease more attainable. This has allowed the Sklarczyks to export to foreign markets where governments might be worried about soil-borne pathogens. Sklarczyk seed potatoes are currently exported not only north to Canada but also to such far-flung places as Thailand, Egypt and Brazil.

Sklarczyk Seed Farm produces two seed crops per year—the first from February to June and another from July to November, with a complete cleaning and sterilization of the greenhouse and all equipment in between crops. And while producing in a hydroponic greenhouse has worked well for his family, Ben Sklarczyk doesn’t see the entire U.S. seed industry following suit.

“It is very challenging to grow a good greenhouse crop in soil; it’s even more challenging when you’re growing in hydroponics,” he says. “In the greenhouse in hydroponics, we have little or no water-holding capacity for our plants, so once we’re in production myself or other staff members need to be in the greenhouse every day during daylight hours every two to three hours walking through the facility to make sure everything there is okay.” If there’s a malfunction with fluid delivery, Ben says, a hot summer day can start drying up an entire crop in just two to three hours. He believes the fact that this way of production is so labor-intensive has kept the practice from growing too fast.

“Plus,” he adds, “there are places where growers feel that a traditional mini-tuber grown in soil just performs better for them.”

But for the Sklarczyk family, this is what works. Today, patriarch Don serves as the operation’s CEO, Ben as COO, and Ben’s wife Allison as manager of the tissue culture lab. They’ll continue to innovate and grow, taking opportunities as they come.

“We feel fortunate,” says Ben. “It’s a fun industry to be involved with. We definitely have our unique part of the industry that we’ve been able to carve out, and we enjoy it.”