School’s in Session

Grower Jeff Bragg has learned valuable lessons at every stop of his potato journey.

Published online: Nov 03, 2018 Articles, Grower of the Month
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This article appears in the November 2018 issue of Potato Grower

To say Jeff Bragg is a veteran of the potato industry would be a massive understatement. In his 60 years of life, he’s hard-pressed to remember a day he wasn’t involved. His experience runs the gamut from large contract grower, to crop consultant, to marketer, to variety protection and development, to organic farming. Today, the job title on his LinkedIn account describes him as a “regenerative agriculturist specializing in developing products from the earth for healthy humans.”

“Potatoes in general are my bag,” says Bragg with a shrug and a sheepish grin. That statement is objectively true to such an extent that his young grandchildren have taken to calling him Grandpa Potatoes. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“They’ve either got to love them, or I’ll drive them to love them,” Bragg says with a laugh.

 

Elementary

Jeff Bragg grew up northeast of Jerome, Idaho, on a row crop farm that raised 14 different crops—most notably potatoes—as well as dairy cows, sheep and hogs.

“Growing up, we basically had an organic farm in the ’60s,” he says. “Everyone in the community was. We just used crop rotations to get everything done we wanted to; my dad was on a seven-year potato rotation.”

Bragg grew up and attended the University of Idaho, where he would meet his wife Sandy, who had grown up in northern Idaho’s logging country. Her eyes were opened to the potato industry the first harvest in which she participated.

“Farming was really different from anything I’d seen before,” she says. “There was a little hustling, bustling city every mile or two across this beautiful countryside.”

From then on, Sandy was along for the Jeff’s ride through the potato industry.

 

Secondary

After graduation, Jeff got a job as a crop consultant with Tremblay Consulting, working with growers across southern Idaho. It was during his time with Tremblay that his potato schooling really got its start.

“Having grown up on a farm, I thought I knew all there was to know,” Jeff says. “But with Tremblay, I learned irrigation scheduling, I learned fertility, I learned how to mix and blend all kinds of fertilizers.”

In the fall of 1980, Tremblay sent Jeff back to the University of Idaho and Washington State University to take a few potato-centric classes. “Basically all my education from then on was geared toward potatoes,” he says. “I studied nematology, I took every weed science, every potato science class. That fall, everything just clicked in my mind.”

 

Higher Education

Jeff worked for Tremblay throughout the ’80s, cultivating valuable relationships with growers and others in the industry the whole way. In 1989, he and Sandy made the move back to the family farm in Jerome.

By now, the Braggs had three daughters, and the family was happy to back into farming. Unfortunately, the mid- to late 1990s were not kind to many Idaho growers. The Braggs, like many of their friends and neighbors, were unprepared to deal with the increasingly global potato industry, particularly the effects of NAFTA. 

“We were famous Idaho potato growers,” says Jeff. “We felt safe. But without contracts, we suddenly had nowhere to go with our potatoes.”

In 2000, Jeff and Sandy made the painful decision to sell their share of the farm. Jeff took a job as general manager of a fresh-pack facility in Stockton, Calif., shipping out asparagus and red, white and yellow potatoes. For two years, the Braggs soaked in everything they could about the specialty potato market. Then they headed back to Idaho, where Jeff finished his master’s degree at UI, then began working for Potandon Produce as the company’s product development manager in charge of specialty potatoes. He was instrumental in Potandon’s adoption and development of the Klondike Gold and Klondike Rose varieties.

“I was the only person there who knew much about plant variety protection,” he says. “I was on the tri-state committee that voted to put the Potato Variety Management Institute together, and that made us a force of change in the industry.”

 

Continuing Education

Through everything, Bragg never lost his itch for farming, but his varied experiences had helped evolve the vision he had for an ideal operation. In 2011, Jeff was diagnosed with insulin resistance. In spite of potatoes’ less than stellar reputation in many nutrition circles, he felt they could play an important role in the growing trend of consumers seeking foods more nutrient-dense and lower on the glycemic index. After 10 years at Potandon, the Braggs stepped away to start their own organic specialty potato farm in 2013, with their seed operation in remote Donnelly, Idaho. Everything Potatoes, as the company is called, now produces around two dozen varieties organically each year.

“Knock on wood,” says Jeff, “but we’ve never had a reading of PVY. I’ve had to re-learn everything I’ve ever been taught. It’s not that I know everything, but I’ve learned a lot of new things and reversed my thought process in a few areas.

“What the industry has to do is find niches and new markets for our producers,” he continues. “I’m staying in organics because I see some really valuable things. But I’m also a friend of all conventional IPM. I think the industry needs to look at all of what we’re doing. It can all play a part.”

It hasn’t always been pretty or perfect, but the education of Jeff and Sandy Bragg has inarguably led to one thing that everyone is looking for—a firm and definite peace and contentedness with the current state of their life.