All in a Day's Work

Mike Wagner of Middleton, Idaho

Published in the January 2016 Issue Published online: Jan 30, 2016 Grower of the Month
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Work. It’s not just part of farm life; it is the life. Callused-hands, dirt-in-your-teeth, grease-under-your-fingernails, before-dawn-until-way-after-dark work. And Mike Wagner loves it.

Wagner grew up farming the arid country of southwestern Idaho with his father, Ed, and never could quite envision himself doing anything else for a living. Like any farm kid worth his salt, Mike would get up early enough in the morning change water or do any other necessary work before he would take off for school.

“If you stayed out all night, you still got up at daylight to take care of everything,” he recalls. “I loved it, so that was never an issue. I could stay out if I wanted, but I still got up in the mornings, because that’s what you’ve got to do.

“That’s not the case with a lot of the next generation,” Wagner continues. “A lot of them want to stay up all night and sleep all day. That may be some life, but it’s not a farm life.”

When Wagner graduated from high school in 1978, the decision of what to do with the rest of his life was relatively easy. He was accepted to the University of Idaho, but, he says, “I had my mind set that I wanted to farm. For me, the best experience was always going to be on the farm rather than in the classroom. So I decided I was going to stay home and farm.”

Good Ground

In those early days, Wagner and his father farmed about 300 acres apiece of wheat, corn, alfalfa and sugarbeets. When Ed passed away from cancer in 1986, his operation was passed to Mike, who has systematically grown the operation over the past 30 years. Wagner’s first potato crop went into the ground in 1992, and Idaho’s signature crop has been a staple on the farm ever since.

Today, Mike Wagner Farms is spread out over more than 8,000 acres in southwestern Idaho and eastern Oregon. While years past have seen Wagner dedicate as much as 1,300 acres to potatoes, a 600- to 800-acre crop represents a typical year. Every Wagner potato is a Russet Burbank, and they all end up at the Heinz (formerly Ore-Ida) process facility in nearby Ontario, Ore.

With such a large operation, Wagner can afford to keep his crops on long rotations, and he takes great care to do just that—especially with potatoes, which are on a five-year rotation. Wagner is proud of the health of his soil but is quick to point out that it takes a lot of upkeep.

“Russets take a lot out of the ground,” he says. “You’ve got to be putting something back into it in order to maintain a stable crop. We use mustard in our rotation and try to put some green manures back into the ground. When we keep that rotation out quite a ways and spread our potatoes around the farm, we have better success.

“Good ground and Mother Nature have more control than we do, but we try to take care of everything we can.”

Water isn’t always easy to come by in the sagebrush country where Wagner has built his life. Because he’s well aware of the finicky nature of the area’s water supply, Wagner serves on the board of the Black Canyon Irrigation District.

“If we don’t have water, we’ve got nothing,” he says. “It’s desert. If you’re not taking care of the soil and water, they’re not going to be there to take care of you. Being on the irrigation board, if water’s going to be tight, I know about it.”

Good People

Wagner knows he couldn’t have made his farm as successful as it is today without plenty of help. Several employees have been with him for 20 years, and none of them is afraid of the responsibility of making a large farm go. Wagner tries to lead by example, and it seems to have paid off.

“I’ve got really good, dependable help,” Wagner says. “Everybody takes care of stuff like it’s their own. Most of them know what’s going on and don’t wait for me to do things. If everybody knows you’re working just as hard as they do, they don’t have a problem getting out in the field at 5 in the morning.”

In particular, Wagner’s oldest daughter, Mindy Steele, has proven to be one of the farm’s most indispensable employees as she keeps all the books and ensures the operation is GAP-certified. “I don’t like the office work at all, but it’s got to be done,” Wagner says. “Mindy loves it, and we’re always on top of things thanks to her.”

Wagner’s brother Gary, an ag engineer, has been back with the farm for 18 years, has also played a pivotal role in the farm’s success. Gary led the farm’s efforts to develop a system for producing biofuels; now, when petroleum prices are high, Wagner Farms is capable of powering itself with its own biodiesel.

Running a farm, especially one this large, is no easy task. The farming game has chewed up and spit out a lot of good people. But Wagner relishes the requisite work.

“There’s just not a better lifestyle than being on a farm,” he says. Which, of course, explains why he never left, and probably never will.