Back in the Game

Central Oregon’s Madras Farms

Published online: Aug 28, 2017 Grower of the Month Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in the September 2017 issue of Potato Grower

Even after Tom Kirsch had accepted the cold, hard fact that growing potatoes simply was not profitable for his farm, the crop was never fully off the table. In the early years of the new millennium, acreage of Russets Burbanks and Russet Norkotahs was being cut back across the country, and it was becoming increasingly difficult for Kirsch to find a market for the potatoes coming out of his central Oregon farm and packing shed. By 2008, Madras Farms had completely phased potatoes from its operation.

“We made a conscious decision to get out of the potato business,” Kirsch says. “The economics at that time just weren’t in our favor. We decided we weren’t going to fight it.”

But it never quite seemed like a permanent split. While Madras Farms evolved into a vibrant, successful seed operation—producing high-quality seed for hybrid carrots, garlic, turf grass and wheat, as well as mint for teas—it always felt like a home for potatoes.

“For so many decades, everything for us revolved around the potato industry,” says Tom Kirsch’s son Michael, who now heads up the Madras Farms operation. “We had a lot of potato expertise from my dad growing them for so many years. Our core people understood the industry and the operations of it. I didn’t want to lose that knowledge base.”

Opportunity knocked in 2012, when a neighboring grower encouraged the Kirsches to look into growing seed potatoes for the chipping market. The Kirsches performed their due diligence and determined that, indeed, this avenue back into the potato game looked to be a profitable one. Madras Farms is now in its sixth season growing Generation 2 seed potatoes, most of which are bound for the fertile soils of the Columbia Basin.

“Already being into quality seed production, seed potatoes fit well into our operation,” says Tom. “And we’ve got some good potato history.”

“We have a good area to grow potatoes,” Michael agrees, “and it would have been a shame if the day came when we couldn’t use that expertise my dad has in growing potatoes. I feel like it was important—even if it was just a short, five- or six-year stint we grew them—for the new generation to be able to run with it and grow potatoes if we needed to in the future.

“The economics also showed it was a profitable enterprise. It fits well with our seed crop mix, with our rotations, keeping fields clean, and for a lot of agronomic reasons.”

Currently, only about 60 of Madras Farms’ 2,000 cultivated acres are under seed potatoes. The Kirsches expect that number to steadily climb into the future. With such a diverse crop portfolio, they feel they are primed to ramp up potato production as that part of their business grows.  

“Right now, potatoes are a profitable enterprise for us,” says Michael. “Every year, we’re re-evaluating it, taking a serious look at expanding our acreage. We’re probably as diverse as anyone in the Deschutes Basin as far as our crop mix, which brings with it good and bad. If we ever need to hone in and be more specific in our enterprises, potatoes would be one of those.”

For the time being, though, crop diversity provides many benefits worth holding onto for Madras Farms. Among those is an assurance of a good, reliable workforce. Many farms, particularly in rural central Oregon, require varying amounts of labor at different times throughout the year. Producing such a variety of crops forces Madras Farms to retain most of its employees year-round, but it also gives the operation a leg up in the quality personnel department. While other growers are out searching for workers every year, the Kirsches and their already trusted employees are already at work producing high-end seed crops.

“As diverse as we are,” says Michael, “we have to rely on our employees to make decisions on their own and think outside the box. They do a good job of that.”

While running the farm provides more than enough challenges to keep the Kirsches busy, both Tom and Michael feel it is vitally important to remain involved in the community and the industry. Each has sat on several boards and committees aimed at promoting agriculture and educating the public. They view public questions and political challenges not as obstacles, but as opportunities to showcase how growers like themselves are trying to forward the mutual interests of both sides.

“It’s critically important that farmers and ranchers work with and educate the community,” says Michael. “You can’t just rely on your own little world and think it’s all going to work out. There are days when you’re tired and don’t want to make the extra effort to go to that meeting. But it’s part of the job description.”

For Madras Farms, potatoes are part of the job description, too, and should be well into the future.  

“I find potatoes to be one of the most rewarding crops because of everything that goes into growing them,” says Michael. “You feel when it’s harvested like you’ve worked hard and you’ve really earned it.”