Always Sunny

Published online: Jan 31, 2017 Grower of the Month, Seed Potatoes Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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Diversity. It’s become a major buzzword in the American lexicon over the last several years. Everybody wants to achieve it: diversity in the workplace, diversity in the government, diversity in the classroom, diversity in Hollywood. As society continues to grow more integrated and interwoven, a growing number of consumers have come to expect the same of their dinner plates.

A medium-rare T-bone with a baked russet on the side may still enjoy a lofty standing in consumers’ mental menus, but that top tier is more crowded than it’s ever been. The consuming public wants to try new, colorful, adventurous foods, and, like it or not, they expect producers to keep up with the trend of diversity. Growers know that’s a tall order; you can’t simply throw some new cultivar in the ground just because Gordon Ramsay mentioned it on MasterChef. A lot of research, money and—perhaps most importantly—time are involved in getting a consumer’s dream meal from farm to fork.

Idaho Falls, Idaho-based SunRain Varieties works to bridge the gap between trend-seeking diners and reality-bound potato growers. The company was founded in 2009 with the idea of being an intellectual property-holding company. With SunRain’s possession of many trademarks and varieties, it seemed like a good plan: sub-license varieties and have other growers grow their seed.

“We had no intention of ever actually farming,” says SunRain business manager Aron Derbidge. “But as we went farther and farther down the road, we realized we needed to have involvement with second-step seed growers. We had to have our own seed operation.”

Once the realization set in that developing a market for their varieties would require actually being in the seed-growing business, SunRain management set to work looking for a suitable location for a seed farm. They looked at farm ground everywhere from northern Idaho to the Columbia Basin, Montana and even southern Utah. It took about two years, but as fortune would have it, an affordable piece of ground became available in Driggs, Idaho, about 75 miles northeast of SunRain’s offices, tissue culture lab and greenhouses. The company purchased about 1,600 acres and began growing their own seed. About 400 acres of that is unfarmed forest, which contributes to the isolation necessary for early-generation seed potato production.

“Being growers wasn’t our original vision,” says Derbidge. “But now that we’re here, we feel that’s what the market needs, and we’ve embraced the role of early-generation seed grower.”

The SunRain farm in Driggs grows an average of about 100 varieties each year, on a five-year rotation. They have long-term leases with several local farmers, growing nearly 500 acres of their seed potatoes. They partner with growers to do variety trials in 14 production areas in 12 states across the country. One of the biggest challenges the company has faced is the lack of infrastructure once it’s determined one is ready to be marketed. 

“As long as potatoes have been around, you’d think there would existing tools you could grab off the shelf and evaluate varieties,” says Derbidge. “But we’ve had to re-invent the wheel. We do our own trial program. We do our own quality assurance inspections during the growing season, during harvest, during shipment. All of those elements help us evaluate those varieties as they go through. So we know how they grow, how they store, how they look as they’re coming through, what their grade-out percentages are, and the typical issues we see with each one. We also have a test kitchen where we test cooking all the varieties in different ways.

“We’ve had to build all that from the ground up. The company’s whole history has been a lot of building infrastructure so we could be successful. Rather than just guessing and sending a load of seed to a particular production area, we do methodical, structured trialing prior.”

As consumer tastes have evolved to crave more diversity, SunRain has been at the forefront of making sure commercial growers have the means to meet changing demands. A major difficulty has been seed growers’ reluctance in general to branch out into growing non-traditional varieties. Over the past five years or so, though, that tide has turned a bit.

“We now have seed growers coming to us and saying, ‘This is what my ground and climate are like; what do you recommend?’” says Derbidge. “So the pull from our customers—seed growers—has been really good. We’re seeing a lot more growers coming and looking for these varieties.”

In the end, the success of SunRain Varieties comes down to the love of potatoes that pulses through everyone in the company. Derbidge credits ownership’s dedication to and belief in the industry as a driving force of SunRain’s growth and rising reputation.

“We’re all potato nerds here,” Derbidge says with a laugh. “We fully admit it. We absolutely love potatoes.”

This article appears in the February 2017 issue of Potato Grower