Growing Potatoes Involves High-Stakes Investment

Published online: Apr 25, 2017 Eli Francovich
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Rex Calloway looks west through the large windows of his 1950s-era farmhouse near Quincy, Wash., and talks about the time, nearly 70 years ago, that his grandfather first arrived on this land.

Back then, the Columbia Basin was dry. A rugged landscape of sagebrush and rolling hills. Rattlesnakes. Scorching summer days. Cold nights. Quincy, the nearest town, was a speck, homesteaders and dry-land farmers eking out an existence on an average of 6 to 8 inches of rain a year.

“A huge leap of faith,” Calloway calls his grandfather’s decision to move from Oklahoma.

But things were changing, and Calloway’s grandfather, already 60 years old at the time, knew it.

“Water was coming,” Calloway says.

Roughly 100 miles to the northeast, the Grand Coulee Dam was rising. And with it, a massive federal irrigation project that would transform the basin into one of the nation’s richest farming areas.

Now, 70 years later, the Columbia Basin is one of the premier potato-growing regions in the country. While Idaho produces more potatoes, Washington growers claim superior efficiency, harvesting as much as 60,000 pounds of potatoes per acre.

Most of Calloway’s 2,700-acre farm is dedicated to potatoes. When he’s not growing potatoes, he produces corn and wheat.

On a recent Friday morning, he is busy. It’s the first day of planting season, and he’s about two weeks behind schedule because of the unusually heavy spring rains.

“It’s thrown a pretty big (curveball) at us this spring,” he says of the rain.

Calloway is just one piece of a statewide industry with a worldwide reach. As big as that industry is, it’s not an easy way to make a living. Shrinking profit margins in an increasingly competitive international market make potatoes a high-stakes investment with plenty of risk and little room for error.

With that competition and specialization come new demands. Growers are increasingly expected to be business managers, chemists, mechanics and salesman, in addition to farmers—belying the romantic, pastoral image many non-farmers may have of agriculture.

“Farming is difficult. This is not easy. This is not easy,” says Calloway, a third-generation farmer. “If your heart is not in this, it will take you down so fast.”


A massive state industry

In an unassuming office in Moses Lake, Wash., Chris Voigt and Ryan Holterhoff oversee the Washington State Potato Commission (WSPC). Baskets of sample potatoes sit in the entryway. Washington state potato souvenirs line the walls.

Voigt is the executive director of the commission, which helps fund potato-related research, works to develop export markets, and advocates for growers at the state and national levels.

Potatoes are worth $7.4 billion to Washington’s economy each year, Voigt says. Although there are only 250 potato growers, the crop creates 36,000 jobs throughout the state.

Those numbers contribute to the potato’s status as the leading vegetable crop in the U.S., representing about 15 percent of all farm vegetables sold, according to USDA statistics. Washington accounts for 23 percent of the national industry.

The first domesticated potatoes were grown in present-day Peru and Bolivia between 5000 B.C. and 8000 B.C. In fact, according to one 1990s economics study by Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian, the cultivation of potatoes accounted for roughly one-quarter of the growth in the Old World between 1700 and 1900.

In 1995, a potato became the first vegetable grown in space. When humans go to Mars, potatoes may very well come along too. In 2015, potatoes played a prominent role in the acclaimed film The Martian.

Washington potatoes are an integral part of this worldwide industry. Yet the scope of Washington’s potato industry isn’t known by the average consumer, says Holterfhoff, the WSPC’s director of marketing and industry affairs.

“We have this very important and vibrant potato industry going on here in Washington,” he says. “And if you get outside of the Columbia Basin, a lot of people don’t even know that exists.”

That’s largely because about 70 percent of the 10 billion pounds of potatoes grown annually in Washington are exported.

“Right now the country of Japan buys more potatoes from Washington than anywhere else in the world,” Holterhoff says.

Blame the weather. Four typhoons hit Japan’s richest agricultural region in August, decimating the country’s own potato industry and causing a potato chip shortage.

American consumers also rarely see Washington potatoes on the supermarket shelves, because most are sold to processing plants in Washington, to companies like Lamb Weston, Simplot and McCain Foods. These plants process the potatoes, turning them into french fries, potato flour, potato chips, frozen potato products or other goods.

And although nearly all Washington potato farms are family-owned and operated, they aren’t stereotypical mom-and-pop operations. Instead, they’re large, sophisticated multimillion-dollar businesses that rely on cutting-edge science and technology. On average, potato farms cost about $5,000 per acre to run. That’s on top of the cost of irrigated land, which can be between $12,000 and $15,000 per acre. That all largely has to do with the increasing competitiveness and difficulty of modern farming.

“If you have a decent year, a good year you might make 4 percent return on your investment,” says Voigt. “If you have something bad happen, you’re going to lose money.”

The small margins, combined with the high-tech machinery necessary to grow potatoes on a large scale, make consolidation and expansion a necessity.

“The margins have gotten so slim,” Voigt says. “To make a living for your family anymore, you have to grow bigger.”


No cold starts

When Calloway’s grandfather came to Washington, he bought land and started farming. In the 21st century, that’s nearly impossible with little available land and the high startup costs of modern agriculture.

Although sometimes an established farmer will hire or train a new farmer, starting from scratch is too expensive and too risky. Unless, Calloway jokes, you’re Jeff Bezos.

“To start farming, just to come into it cold, it doesn’t happen,” Calloway says. “You do not get somebody cold-starting a farm.”

The lack of new farmers underscores another underlying problem for potato growers and agriculture in general. As younger generations become increasingly disinterested in farming, family farms often are auctioned when elder growers retire.

Calloway has two sons, a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old, and although they help around the farm in the summers, it’s not a sure bet that they will take over the farm when he retires.

“Are my boys going to farm? I would love it for them to farm,” Calloway says.

But his sons may choose not to. If that happens, Calloway might be forced to auction his farm.

The average age of the American farmer was 58 years old in 2012, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census. What’s more, the number of new farmers—those operating for 10 years or less—dropped by 20 percent between 2007 and 2012.

“I’ve seen more auctions this year than I’ve ever seen,” says Paul Wollman, the farm manager at the Warden Hutterian Brethren farm, east of Calloway’s farm. “This, here, is getting to the point where it’s a big concern.”


More management, less dirt

“It’s what we’ve been doing for many generations,” says 21-year-old Nick Wollman while perched in the cockpit of a half-million-dollar potato planter. “These are my spuds. I’m not working for somebody else. It’s not my job. It’s my responsibility to make sure these get planted right.”

Wollman watches four video screens showing recently cut seed potatoes being deposited into the rich earth of one of the Hutterite fields. The tractor is GPS-controlled, driving in nearly perfect half-mile lines. Wollman’s job is that of machine overseer. He makes sure systems are running correctly, that the potatoes are evenly spaced and chemicals evenly applied. Then, when he reaches the end of a row, he turns the machine around and lets the GPS take over again.

Wollman is one of the 126 people who live at the Warden Hutterite Colony near Warden. The colony was founded in the early 1970s as an offshoot of a Spokane colony. They trace their religious and cultural roots to the 1500s and the Protestant Reformation.

Paul Wollman, Nick’s uncle, insists that despite the farm’s sophistication, at its core, it’s essentially a big family farm.

“We’re a family farm, and we are uniquely different from the farmer down the road,” Paul Wollman says.

But what really makes the Hutterite situation unique, at least as far as farming goes, is the communal ownership.

“I can’t say this is mine,” says Paul’s older brother, Albert Wollman. “It’s all ours.”

Nick Wollman’s attitude toward his job illustrates the communal buy-in at the Hutterite Colony. Unlike most potato growers (and farmers in general) the Hutterites don’t rely on seasonal labor. Instead, they work together to plant and harvest the potato crop.

Back at Rex Calloway’s farm, in a dimly lit, steel-reinforced concrete hangar, he’s addressing a crew of six Hispanic workers he’s hired for the planting season. Calloway, a tall, lean man, hunches slightly to be heard by the shorter men and women gathered around a stopped conveyor belt. Potatoes sit on the belt bed. Small upturned paring knives are attached to the sides of the metal bin.

“Does everyone understand English?” Calloway asks.

One woman shakes her head. So one of Calloway’s full-time employees begins to translate.

“What I’m trying to stress to you is safety,” Calloway says. “Your hands only stay on the top deck.”

These kinds of administrative concerns occupy most of Calloway’s days, making him in some respects more of a manager and less of a farmer.

“I haven’t sat in a tractor in 15 years. I don’t plant, I don’t till,” Calloway says.

Later, he clarifies that on a regular basis he doesn’t sit on a tractor, instead overseeing the farm’s operations. Calloway misses that hands-on work. He misses having dirt on his hands. So does Albert Wollman.

“Used to be we spent (winters) in the shop fixing stuff,” he says. “Now, you spend them getting your certifications.”


American nostalgia

Those changes underscore a profound shift in how American farmers ply their trade. Although food packaging and the popular imagination still depict pastoral scenes of quiet country work, the reality is different.

While planting on an April afternoon, Nick Wollman reflects on the changes brought about by technology.

“Farming is a lot easier. It is not easy, but it’s a lot easier nowadays,” he said.

As evidence of the increased ease of farming, Wollman points to the tractor he’s driving, or, to be more precise, monitoring. The GPS-guided machine travels up and down the rows in perfectly straight lines, with little or no human input.

Wollman has never driven a tractor that was not GPS-steered. His father, Albert Wollman, remembers the mental drain of focusing on driving straight lines for 10 or 12 hours a day. To keep the rows straight over a half-mile line, growers marked out rows with rolls of paper towels half buried in the dirt every 150 feet.

With the GPS guidance, Albert Wollman gets to read, often spending the days buried in The Wall Street Journal or The Atlantic.

“You get an opportunity to sit and think and whatever, read a book,” he says of the planting season.

While planting, Albert and Nick communicate via radio. At one point, Albert’s tractor stops and he jumps out and starts digging into the soil. Then he gets back in his tractor and starts to back up.

“My computer crashed so I’m going to have to replant this row,” he tells Nick over the radio.

The cultural underpinnings of Calloway’s farm, and that of the Hutterites, is one based on an ideal: the resilience and reliance of farmers, perpetuated in American culture through generations. However, these same operations increasingly depend on mechanized and specialized machinery—machinery that comes at a cost.

“I don’t get my hands dirty. I have guys who get their hands dirty,” Calloway says. “I miss it. I’d rather sit on a tractor.”



Source: Spokesman-Review