Making It Work

Idaho seed grower Mike Telford

Published online: Jan 05, 2018 Grower of the Month Buzz Shahan, Chief Operating Officer, United Potato Growers of America
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This article appears in the January 2018 issue of Potato Grower.

Imagine a young boy peering through the fence at a Major League Baseball team as they warm up during spring training, and saying to himself, “That’s what I’m going to do when I grow up.”

In essence, that is what happened to young Mike Telford back in 1964. Telford grew up in a hardworking family in West Bountiful, Utah—just not a potato farming one. As a high school and college student, Telford got the chance to actually press his hands into the soil of his brother-in-law’s farm in southern Idaho. During summer vacations, he worked for his brother and other local growers. The same hard work that discouraged others from pursuing a career in applied agriculture only served to further inspire Telford.

He was told numerous times that with only desire and no capital, becoming a farmer in his own right couldn’t be done. Undeterred, with only an ag economics degree in his pocket and a couple years operating his brother-in-law’s farm, Telford approached an elderly couple who had a small farm in Hazelton, Idaho, and asked if they would be interested in selling their operation. Having saved enough money for a down payment, he convinced the couple to carry a note. From that day until this, Telford has been a full-fledged farmer. Today, he lives near Paul, Idaho, and does the bulk of his farming just north of there in Lincoln and Butte Counties.

A lot of storms faced Telford in those early days of his farm: the ruinous economic downturns of the mid-‘70s and a repeat performance of those disastrous years again in the mid-‘80s. Each trial saw Telford’s operation beaten and bruised, but instead of hardship defeating him, it strengthened him and taught him vital lessons. In fact, those hard years created a farmland market filled with opportunity; at least, that’s how Telford saw it. In addition to increasing his farm’s acreage whenever the opportunity presented itself, Telford harvested his first potato crop in 1974. In 1982, he entered the seed potato business. As the saying goes, the rest is history—not necessarily blissful history, but solid, well thought-out history.

Telford and his wife Shannon have 10 children, all now grown. Five of their sons currently run their own farming operations spread from the Magic Valley north to Arco, Idaho. The success of the Telford operation, managed as a conglomerate, speaks for itself. Underpinning that success lie certain hard-earned, foundational principles Telford picked up along the way.

“Customers are everything to a seed grower’s success, and I have some of the best,” says Telford. “Between 80 and 90 percent of our seed crop is pre-sold. If it weren’t for natural turnover in our customer base such as retirement and other uncontrollable circumstances, we’d pre-sell even more than that.”

Additional guiding principles include limiting varieties to six mainstays and keeping each of them as pure as is possible.

“Our seed performs well—always,” Telford says with a wink. “At least, that’s our unending goal.”

While producing seed potatoes for both fresh and process markets, the Telfords extend their rotations with wheat, dry beans, corn, sugarbeets, and timothy and alfalfa hay. “Keeping our ground refreshed with extended rotations, we see as vital to producing clean, high-quality seed,” Telford says.

“It’s been amazing to me to see how the Russet Burbank has hung in there as the fallback variety,” he continues. “Rather than people taking potshots at it, perhaps refining cultural practices to maximize its potential would be a better way to go. A new variety is always on the horizon possessing a certain outstanding quality, and I’m open to that. But just think of how many varieties have come and gone while the Burbank stays in there, delivering consistent and dependable quality.

“With the expansion of U.S. frozen-process exports and increases in U.S. quickservice potato usage, I see nothing but opportunity on the horizon. Some see GMO as a threat to certain aspects of our business. I don’t. I tend to put GMO in its own category. GMO fits where it fits, and is needed where it fits, but, today, it doesn’t fit everywhere. Over time, it will find its slot similar to what organic potatoes have done.

“The big threat looming over us seed growers, as I see it, is PVY. We’ve learned to manage most other pathogenic threats, but this one remains a challenge,” he continues. “A part that can be easily overlooked by purchasers of our seed is the cost we incur in controlling PVY all along the seed propagation stream; it’s not uncommon for some early-generation seed growers to have to throw away 40 percent of the stock they begin with before it can get to the commercial grower. But, really, that’s our job—producing clean, high-performance potato seed.”