Persistence and Potatoes

Published online: Oct 09, 2018 Articles
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Source: Herald & News 

Persistence pays off when you’re growing potatoes.

Dan Chin, owner and operator of Wong Potatoes in Merrill, Ore., knows this well, and so did his father and grandfather before him.

Chin’s grandfather Sam Wong came to the United States from China in the early 1900s, first to the Stockton, Calif., area and then to Fallon, Nev., experiencing failed crops and hard financial times. Wong later moved to Alturas, where he opened a Chinese restaurant before hearing of potato possibilities in the Klamath Basin from a traveling salesman.

Keeping his restaurant in Alturas, Wong started growing Russet potatoes in Merrill, changing the direction of his and eventually Chin’s future.

“He was persistent,” Chin said of his grandfather, “so we’ve been growing potatoes in the Klamath Basin since the early 1930s.”

With another tough water year behind him, and workers busily harvesting his 47th crop, Chin shares his family’s resiliency and resolve to keep his business going despite challenges he and his business face.

Potato production down

Production of potatoes is down by about 30 percent due to water shortages experienced early in the irrigation season.

“A third of our ground was dry,” Chin said, noting he farmed a dozen fields this year compared to 17 or 18.

“Given that, we weren’t able to plant as many potatoes as we anticipated … basically we won’t have as many potatoes as we normally would like to have for our customers, so we’re going to have to stretch that out with different customers.

“We’ve had water issues for 20 years,” Chin added, “and we’ve had a couple challenging years, this being one of them.

“2001 was another challenging one,” he added.

Seed potatoes are purchased the year prior to planting, and then ground is lined up for the crop, according to Chin.

“It’s really challenging to not have guaranteed available water come February, March, April,” Chin said.

“It was really challenging, too, because you had a full lake of water (Upper Klamath Lake), and it was all in the court systems. No one could really make a decision one way or another.”

Aside from water concerns, Chin describes it as a short growing season for potatoes in the Klamath Basin, where frost is a constant concern all year long.

“It makes it more of a challenge to grow potatoes,” Chin said.

Best practices

His father, George Chin, and grandfather, Wong, taught Chin to ensure he started with good soil, enough water for potatoes to grow and not dry out, and to look for diseases or problems that could harm production.

“Potatoes are labor-intensive,” Chin added. “So treat your employees well,” his family had told him.

“We’ve had employees who are like family, that some have been working for us over 40 years,” Chin added.

Chin employees fluctuates between about 55 full-time employees and 75 during harvest. He and his wife, DeeDee Chin bought the business in 1999.

“We’ve had some tough years in the past,” Chin said. “This year has been especially tough to make a plan to grow potatoes and make it work.”

Coming into a year with water uncertainty, Chin said he looked at several factors, including access to other water sources.

“We tried to stay around wells as much as we could,” Chin said, adding that he utilized wells drilled by Tulelake Irrigation District in or after 2001.

“We tried to figure out where the best places to put potatoes were around those wells.

“It still is challenging,” Chin added, noting that regulations must be followed for both Oregon and neighboring California since he farms in both states.

Some of the concerns this year have been ensuring longtime customers both near and far, some who he has supplied for over 50 years or more, that they could keep buying their spuds from Wong Potatoes.

No easy path

Growing potatoes involves many factors aside from water, such as adhering to food safety regulations, and undergoing an organic audit.

“They go through records of land history, fertilizer use, pesticide use,” Chin said.

Chin enjoys the process of growing potatoes, though, and finding new varieties to farm.

“We’re always looking for that one that’s different, that’s good, good to grow, good to yield, good looking, good to eat, good to cook,” he added, “all those characteristics.”

Wong had mainly grown russet potatoes, something Chin expanded under his operation.

“When I first started growing potatoes, I developed one of the first Yukon golds on the West Coast,” Chin said.

“That was the first start of something besides a russet ... that was kind of a stepping stone, but 15 years ago, I started doing organic potatoes.”

The varieties created since amount to more than one dozen, including a huckleberry variety known for its purple color.

“We probably have 13 different varieties,” Chin said.

Wong Potatoes are shipped to Walmarts in California, as well as overseas in Taiwan and Vietnam.

Chin said he’s considering shipping to South Korea this year, as well, since an opportunity opened up.

“We do a little bit of exporting,” Chin said.

“On the organic side, we sell all across the United States and Canada.”

Despite a reduction in production this year, Chin appears undeterred moving forward in the industry.

“We’ve really invested our time, our money, our values into producing potatoes and other crops,” Chin said. “It’s a passion – you have to want to like what you’re doing and it has to be part of the whole process.”