Happy to Be Here

Grower Ed Starkel of Polson, Mont.

Published online: Dec 04, 2018 Grower of the Month Tyrell Marchant, Editor
Viewed 2598 time(s)

This article appears in the December 2018 issue of Potato Grower.

The smile, even if it’s subtle, rarely leaves its home directly below Ed Starkel’s snow-white mustache, which is somehow both bushy and immaculately groomed. He is a man who takes his job as a seed potato grower and steward of the land very seriously, but who could never be accused of taking himself too seriously.

“We’ve always worked hard on this farm,” Starkel says. “But it’s important to take time to slow down and smell the roses a little bit.”

Indeed, there are an abundance of metaphorical roses to be smelled around Starkel’s farm near Polson, Mont. Even shrouded in a smoky haze from a massive late-summer wildfire in nearby Glacier National Park, northwestern Montana’s Mission Valley is one of the prettiest places you could imagine putting a farm. Starkel is a native son to this country, and it is just as much a part of him as he is a part of it.

Ed Starkel grew up the seventh of 12 children in a farming family in Ronan, Mont., about a half-hour drive from his current farm. The family started raising seed potatoes in 1960, and young Ed got the itch. Once he received his undergraduate degree in 1973, his father offered him a job back on the home place, and he snatched up the opportunity. While all seven of the Starkel boys were intimately involved in the potato industry as adults, only Ed and his younger brother Roger—Ed’s neighbor down the road—are still in the business.

“I grew up in the spud business,” Ed says. “When I was younger, it was always my plan to come back and farm. I just love raising potatoes.”

When their father retired in 1985, Ed and Roger took over the farming operation. That first year in the boss’s chair was, to put it lightly, a challenge. Many of the family’s longtime customers—commercial growers in the Columbia Basin—were also retiring from the farm game, and several fell by the wayside during the transition. So the Starkel brothers hit the road.

“Roger and I put together a pamphlet and made a trip out to Washington,” Ed says. “We just started knocking on doors, showing commercial growers our program. Before long, we had our own customer base.”

It wasn’t just marketing their seed crop that gave the Starkels trouble. Mother Nature can be fickle in the Flathead country, and she had a lesson to teach the young growers.

“Dad always told us, ‘Boys, you’ve got a 110-day growing season up here,’” Ed recalls with a rueful yet genuine smile. “‘You’ve got that time to get your spuds planted, raised and harvested.’ Well, our first crop froze in the ground. It got down to 10 degrees by Sept. 20. It’s still a challenge every year, but that was one of the earliest freezes I ever saw.”

The brothers weathered that first rough year, and eventually the business thrived. In 1999, with another generation coming up, they split the operation. The two farms still share most of their equipment, which has proven beneficial to both. Today, Ed and his son Kyle farm around 200 acres of Alturas, Russet Burbank and Clearwater Russet seed potatoes on a five-year rotation with mostly wheat and hay.

The Starkels have never been about making room on the farm for a family member who isn’t ready to contribute in a meaningful way. That held true for Kyle, who spent nearly a decade away working as a diesel mechanic for Volvo and Kenworth before returning to the farm last spring.

“The older I got,” says Kyle, “the more I thought, I want to carry on this wonderful family legacy, here on this farm.”

“Several of our longtime customers are my age and taking a step back,” says Ed. “Now it’s their kids working with Kyle. The next generation just carries on.”

Ed leans back in his chair a bit and gazes out the kitchen window at the land that has been so good to four generations of Starkels. That smile is there, revealing the pride he obviously has in regard to this place, this family—and the obvious, unfettered joy he takes in them. Then he turns back to me.

“Well, is that enough for ya?” he asks, and guffaws. “We’ve got lots more stories!”

The answer, of course, is that I would love to sit and listen to more of the Starkels’ tales, and I do for a while. There are probably enough to fill a good-sized book. But to hear them all, you’ll have to ask Ed Starkel himself.