Montana Family Continues Strong Seed Potato Tradition

Published online: Aug 19, 2019 Articles, Seed Potatoes
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Source: NBC Montana

The average American eats 100 pounds of potatoes a year. So there's always demand for healthy seed potatoes.

Laci and Scott Holbrook supply seed stock for commercial growers and home gardeners from their certified seed potato farm in Twin Bridges, Mont.

As many as a million plants stretch out over 70 acres at Holbrook Seed Potatoes.

The seed potato operation, located in the Ruby Valley in southwestern Montana, is breathtaking.

Both the Holbrooks share deep, family roots in agriculture. Scott comes from dairy farms in Idaho. Laci grew up on a diversified ranch in Twin Bridges and is a fourth-generation Montana potato grower. Her great-grandfather, Guy George, farmed north of Twin Bridges in Waterloo.

"He migrated from Italy in the early 1900s," she said. "His was one of the first farms that really started growing seed."

The couple raises first-generation seed potatoes and specializes in garden seed varieties.

"From your standard russets that you'll find in the grocery store," said Scott, " to the specialty fingerling types."

"The seed is destined for other people to grow," said Laci.

The couple pointed out a few of the 31 varieties on their farm.

"Our Russet Burbank potatoes are probably our biggest lot," said Laci. "It's about nine acres, and this seed will go to other Montana certified seed growers."

As she walked down a long row, Laci pointed to other plants as she passed.

"This one is a Yukon Gem," she said. "Then we have a Payette, which is a new russet, and we have four or five different chip varieties."

Scott gently shoveled into the ground so Laci could pull out one of the most popular red potatoes.

"These are Red Pontiacs," said Scott. "Everybody wants them. That's what grandpa grew in the garden."

Laci shook the soil from the plant that was thick with roots, to find a cluster of healthy, but still immature red potatoes.

" If they double I think we'd be pretty happy with our yield off this plant," she said.

In a section of the field awash with purple blossoms, the Holbrooks dug another plant called a Huckleberry Gold. It's a fairly new variety that's growing in popularity.

"It's shown to be good for diabetics," said Laci. " They have a lower glycemic index."

"These are NorDonnas," said Scott, as he stood deep in a field of purple blossoms. "A grower asked us to start growing these this year. We grow based on customer demand."

The family gets all kinds of requests to grow specific varieties.

Growing seed potatoes requires intensive labor. 

" If you grow seed potatoes in Montana," said Scott, "to get certification you have to follow some of the strictest standards in the country. There's a lot of disease in potatoes that can cause commercial farms to have weak crops. So we have to start with very clean seed."

"And it's important that the state's home gardeners have clean seed," said Laci.

The Montana State University Potato Lab also closely monitors the potatoes. Scott sprays the plants with a mineral oil to inhibit aphids from feeding on the plants. The Holbrooks spend a lot of time roguing, or walking the rows, checking for unhealthy plants.

The nuclear generation, or the first field-grown crop, is hand-harvested, then planted in family units the following year. Colored flags designate where those units are located.

"Between each flag is one unit, and that one unit was one plant last year," said Laci. "So if it picked up a disease last year, when we plant all these plants together the following year, they'll all be together and we can see the disease."

It allows the Holbrooks to keep close tabs on the vigor of each plant. As they looked out over their lush fields, the couple said they're pleased with this year's crop.

"We had a cold winter and a late spring," said Laci. "Our plants are a little behind, but they're catching up, so we're optimistic that we'll have a good crop."

"We're pretty happy with them," said Scott. " They've got good color and good size."

All the blossoms at Holbrook Seed Potatoes show that the plants are maturing and developing tubers.

The Holbrooks farm in a community that is home to many potato farmers. For generations, families on the East Bench of Twin Bridges and Dillon have been growing spuds. The Holbrooks said the valley offers an ideal climate for growing potatoes. Laci said she thinks her great-grandfather, who was "very attentive to detail and a very good grower, would be amazed at the technological advances."

"It's common for seed growers in our area to get 350 to 400 sacks per acre," said Laci. "It's really good soil to grow potatoes. ... Our best promotional tool is that we grow seed in Montana. Montana has a fabulous reputation."

The Holbrooks have two little boys who are growing up on the farm.

"I wouldn't want to do anything else," said Scott."I can bring my kids to work."

The couple met at Carroll College, where Scott played football and Laci played basketball.

Laci then earned a master's degree at the University of Minnesota in plant breeding. Since she was a child she wanted to be a flower breeder.

"I always told people I wanted to make a blue Merigold," she said. But instead she found herself growing potatoes.

"We can't imagine doing anything else," she said. "We're loving it."

Scott worked in law enforcement, a dream that he had since he was a boy. But Laci said he "got the farming bug."

"I never looked back," said Scott.

Now, a century after Guy George started growing potatoes, Laci, Scott and their children continue the family tradition.