Cache Crop

Grower Chris Karren of Lewiston, Utah

Published online: Jul 28, 2017 Grower of the Month Tyrell Marchant, Editor
Viewed 1812 time(s)

This article appears in the August 2017 issue of Potato Grower.

The rain still hasn’t let up after nearly 24 hours, and it’s starting to get difficult to take a step without landing in a puddle. But Chris Karren’s mood is far from dreary. Just a mile south of the Idaho-Utah border, he and his crew are occupied shipping seed potatoes out to a customer in Washington, and there’s a whirl of mechanical and human activity as seed moves out of the cellar and onto the trucks. It’s a busy day, and that means it’s a good day.

Despite its almost immediate proximity to the famous potato-growing soils of southern Idaho, Karren’s native Cache Valley in northern Utah is rarely thought of as potato country. Five generations of Karrens have made their livings farming in and around the tiny town of Lewiston, and Chris is the first to have ventured into potatoes. He and his father, Keith, were intrigued by the prospect of potatoes for several years, even reaching out to seed growers in Grace, Idaho, about 50 miles north, about potential partnerships. No legitimate opportunity for getting into the potato game really came along—until about a decade ago.

“We started growing seed potatoes in 2007,” Karren says. “Potandon Produce reached out to us, and we started growing seed for them.”

The first couple years Karren grew potatoes were a bit of a trial run. In 2007, he just grew mini-tubers for Potandon. In 2008 he harvested 70 acres of seed, and his buyer liked the product.

“In 2009,” says Karren, “we took the plunge, built a cellar and grew 250 acres of seed potatoes.”

The farm went through one more year of major ramping  up, and since 2010, 400 to 500 of the farm’s 3,000 acres have been dedicated to producing seed potatoes for Potandon and Sunrain Varieties. Karren grows his seed potatoes on a five-year rotation with crops that supply the local dairy industry, such as silage corn, alfalfa and soft white winter wheat. On a smaller scale, he also produces grass seed and pea seed.

“In this area, we’ve always been kind of dependent on the dairy farmers,” Karren says. “The potatoes got us into a situation where we are able to determine our own destiny and have a little more control over our end game.”

Karren doesn’t cut his seed before planting, instead preferring to plant it whole. Using a Grimme belt planter, that whole seed is planted 10 to 11 inches apart each spring.

“That seed has so much vigor,” Karren says. “Our quality is higher than when we’ve cut it. It’s something we’ve really liked.”

Depending on the year, Karren grows between 25 and 30 varieties of G1 and G2 seed potato for Sunrain, most of them traditionally European varieties. To put it mildly, that makes it a little different from your typical seed farm, which might grow a few hundred acres of one or two varieties.

“To keep organized and keep track of all those different varieties is a little overwhelming sometimes,” Karren says. “We’ve got to figure out which varieties to plant in which fields with what inputs. Some take more nitrogen, some take more potassium. Just the management part of the potatoes is a full-time job.”

It’s not just the growing of so many different varieties that can be a logistical minefield. Harvest and storage present significant challenges as well. Countless hours are spent cleaning and sanitizing equipment as it moves from one variety to another on the Karren farm. Varieties have to be stored separately, and with dozens of them, that can be a challenge. While some of his potatoes are stored in bulk in, Karren utilizes box storage for much of his crop. Big yellow crates full of seed potatoes are stacked floor to ceiling in the warehouse, creating almost cathedral-like corridors. 

“They store really, really well in the crates,” says Karren. “With the big piles, you have to worry a lot more about pressure bruise. You can climatize the crates a lot better. It’s just a little more time-consuming and a lot more work.

“Even the bulk piles are only 15 or 20 acres’ worth of one variety,” he continues. “So we’re always stopping and cleaning up and going again. There’s a lot of time involved.”

Karren has embraced the challenge of growing seed potatoes in Cache Valley. It appeals to his curious nature and his appetite for acquiring new knowledge and skills.

“I get bored fast,” he says with a laugh. “I’m always looking for something new to do. This has challenged me and has been exciting for me. It’s still so new to us and has such a steep learning curve, I still feel a little intimidated by it sometimes. And I haven’t gotten bored of it yet.”

The way things are looking, boredom is likely not something Chris Karren will have to contend with any time soon.