Still Growing Up

2018 IGSA Russet Aristocrat Dale Mickelsen continues to seek out paths to prosperity

Published online: Aug 06, 2018 Articles, Grower of the Month Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in the 2018 IGSA Yearbook/Convention Program.

Dale Mickelsen was raised on what he calls a small farm a few miles north of Idaho Falls, Idaho. He grew up changing water under a blazing summer sun and breathing in the sweet, earthy smell of freshly dug spuds at harvest time. Idaho soil and Idaho potatoes are in his blood; always have been. It’s really no wonder, given the work he has put in and the influence he’s had on so many in the industry, that Mickelsen has been named the IGSA’s 2018 Russet Aristocrat.

After graduating from high school, Mickelsen attended Brigham Young University, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting. He got a job as an accountant in Houston and lived and worked in East Texas for five years, becoming a certified public accountant.

“But,” he says, “I decided I didn’t want to be an accountant working for someone else all my life. So I decided, ‘I’m going to go back home and get involved in farming if I can.”

Well, it turns out he could. In 1974, Mickelsen moved back to eastern Idaho and purchased a farm of around 1,000 acres with his brother and brother-in-law. Utilizing each partner’s talents, the farm grew. In 1978, the farm’s potato yield exceeded expectations to such an extent that, Mickelsen says, “We were concerned about getting them all marketed.”

As fate would have it, Robert Hurley of Robert Hurley Potato Company in nearby Rigby was looking to sell his fresh potato-packing facility around the same time. On Jan. 1, 1979, the Mickelsens officially took over the facility and renamed it Rigby Produce. The decision was made that Dale would be the primary operator of the new endeavor, taking a step back from the farming operation.

“When it first started I was right out working on the farm,” says Mickelsen. “But once we bought the packing facility, I couldn’t part-time it; the packing facility became my full-time job. We’ve split the responsibilities pretty cleanly, though we do coordinate with each other a lot.”

Rigby Produce operated out of the old Hurley shed for the next 18 years, making improvements to equipment and increasing production from around 4,000 to more than 8,000 hundredweight per day. But Mickelsen wasn’t sure how much more the facility could handle. He knew he wanted to extend company’s progress if there was a way.

“As I looked into the future,” he says, “I thought, ‘In order to be a real player in the industry, we need to have a new facility with new, state-of-the-art equipment.’”

In 1997, the old Hurley shed was sold, and Rigby Produce moved to a brand new facility about a mile to the north. The new place was big and beautiful, capable of packing about 12,000 hundredweight of potatoes each day. For the first several months, things ran fairly smoothly. Then disaster struck.

Eight months in, a fire started somewhere in the new Rigby Produce, enveloping the whole shed in savage flames.

“That fire completely destroyed the plant,” Mickelsen says. Then, for emphasis: “Completely destroyed. It was just incredible.

“That was a pretty dark time,” he continues. “We had this shell of a facility, all these potatoes left to run, no facility to work out of.”

But as is the Mickelsens’ wont, “we got through it and started rebuilding.” They leased a small facility in Idaho Falls to run some of their crop that year and got to work rebuilding the new shed. It took almost a year, but the Rigby Produce plant was ultimately rebuilt and shipping world-famous Idaho potatoes around the country. The decision to rebuild the facility turned out to be a good one, as Rigby Produce continues to churn out quality fresh potatoes more than two decades later.  

“This place increased in volume out of necessity as the farm grew,” says Mickelsen. “And we do a good job. We’ve kept a lot of the same customer base all these years, and we work with several farmers we’ve worked with since we got into this business.”

Mickelsen has donated a fair share of his time over the years to supporting the industry. He has served on the IGSA board, as a commissioner on the Idaho Potato Commission, and as a member of the U.S. Potato Board (now known as Potatoes USA).

“It’s a way to give back to the industry that’s been good to you,” he says. “It takes a lot of time to do those things; it’s a big thing. By helping the entire industry, it helps you in your business.”

Mickelsen says the key tenets that have led to the success of Rigby Produce are active opportunity-seeking, confident decision-making, and a dedication to quality.

“Once you get a vision of where you can go,” he says, “you do things that can support that vision.”