Farm Kid

James Hoff of Idaho Falls, Idaho

Published online: Apr 04, 2017 Grower of the Month
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This article appears in the 2016 Idaho Annual issue of Potato Grower.

The school bus stopped at the end of the gravel driveway. The instant the doors opened, a skinny, dark-haired kid burst through as if shot from a cannon. He sprinted up the driveway, tossed his backpack onto the back porch, hopped onto his bicycle, and raced off. It was a Tuesday afternoon in early October, and James Hoff was headed for the fields to help with potato harvest.

“From the time I was 11 or 12 years old, I just had to be in the middle of it, especially at harvest,” Hoff reminisces now. “I’d ride to wherever they were digging spuds or whatever cellar they were filling, just itching to do something. I couldn’t wait to pull boards out of the trucks before we had self-unloading beds. I’d jump in with the truckers and unload their trucks.”

The Hoff family has farmed the same patch of ground south of Idaho Falls for well over a century; potatoes have been coming off their place since 1910. So it would be easy to say it’s in James Hoff’s blood. But in reviewing his life and career as a potato grower, and you begin to wonder if that might be true in a literal sense. James Hoff is every inch, every ounce, an Idaho potato grower, and his heart very well may be pumping that rich Bonneville county dirt through his veins.

“I never saw myself doing anything else,” he says. “This was always the plan. I had to work my way up—I’ve moved a lot of handline in my day—but I always wanted to be here, farming.”

Hoff farms about 1,100 acres, 250 of which are dedicated to that most Idahoan of crops: Russet Burbank potatoes. All of his potatoes go to the fresh market via nearby GPOD of Idaho.

“I’ve played around with other varieties in the past,” Hoff says, “but I never really got the yields I was looking for. But we could always grow Burbanks, so we’ve stuck with that.”

Burbanks have treated Hoff well, and he’s always been eager and willing to return the favor and do what he can to help the Idaho potato industry. He came back to the farm full-time upon his graduation from Idaho State University, and it wasn’t long before his father, Bob, was bringing him along to all the industry meetings. In his early 20s, Hoff got his first taste of industry leadership.

“Dad had dragged me to a PGI (Potato Growers of Idaho) district meeting, back when PGI was really involved in processing negotiations,” Hoff recalls. “Somebody raised his hand and said, ‘We ought to get some of these young fellers involved. I nominate James Hoff to be district secretary/treasurer.’ So there I was.”

Hoff turned out to have a knack for leadership in the industry, and he’s been waist-deep in it ever since. He’s still involved with PGI and its political action committee. In 2000, he began the first of two six-year terms on the U.S. Potato Board (now Potatoes USA), and he has recently finished his first year as a member of the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC).

“I try to be as involved as I can,” says Hoff. “It’s all been really rewarding, particularly this past year on the commission.”

Hoff even got his 30 seconds of fame in working with the IPC in 2014 for its series of nationally aired commercials featuring the Big Idaho Potato Truck. The Hoffs own several early-model airplanes, all of which they keep airworthy, and James was approached by IPC leadership about the possibility of using one of them for a commercial. So Hoff and his biplane made their appearance, though he is credited in the ad as simply “Another Idaho Potato Farmer” alongside “Actual Idaho Potato Farmer” Mark Coombs.

“It was a pretty fun experience,” Hoff says. “We mounted cameras to the airplane and did actual flying and everything.

“It’s been fascinating to be part of the process with the IPC. They do a lot for us as growers; Idaho potatoes is one of the strongest brands out there.”

As much as the IPC does for Idaho growers, Hoff says nothing can compare to the role his family has played in getting him to this point in his life. His parents, Bob and Jane, are still actively involved in the farming operation, and his wife, Darla, has always supported and even encouraged him in his positions in the potato industry.

“A lot of times you have to pretty selfless to make family farms work,” Hoff says. “Sometimes you have to make hard decisions, and those decisions can be even harder with family. We have a great dynamic with our family, and that support and wisdom from the older generation has made it work.”

That family support has helped that skinny kid who would rather hang out at the spud cellar than do his homework grow into one of the industry’s finest growers and advocates.